ConservativeHome has been arguing for some time that this Commons won’t back a Brexit policy; that a new Prime Minister is unlikely to break the deadlock; that a general election is therefore likely in the autumn, and that Boris Johnson would make a better fist of it than Jeremy Hunt – with the necessary rider that, if a poll takes place and Brexit hasn’t been delivered, the Conservatives will be incinerated. Whoever the leader may be.
In so far as yesterday evening’s ITV debate mattered at all, it served to remind us these self-evident truths. Jeremy Hunt had no answer to when he would deliver Brexit, if he can’t do so by October 31. And Boris Johnson had no answer as to how he will deliver Brexit if the Commons finds a way of frustrating No Deal. Indeed, the front-runner, whose way of speaking through mis-speaking somehow endures, at one point spoke of “the forthcoming election”.
Such is our main takeaway from the event – especially since perhaps half the Party members eligible to vote have already done so. We expect the hour’s discussion to have little impact on the result. This is a pity, since the format was brisk, much ground was covered, the studio audience put questions without theatricals, and Julie Etchingham was an effective compere. Eat your heart out, BBC.
But although the effect of the debate on this leadership election will doubtless be marginal, the inevitable search for a winner is taking place. Our rough sense is that Johnson did better in the first half of proceedings, when the topic was Brexit, and Hunt better in the second half, when other policy questions came to the fore.
Johnson may not exactly have displayed ring generalship, as they say in boxing, but he has a powerful, bulldozing presence, and is sharper in counter-attack than some might expect. “That’s the spirit, Jeremy,” he declared over that October 31 deadline, making the audience laugh with him. And indeed he won the lion’s share of applause during the hour’s to-and-for.
Hunt danced round his opponent, probing, jabbing, throwing frequent punches – and making his points neatly and tidily. He doesn’t have Johnson’s expansive brio, and was vulnerable to his opponent’s suggestion that he flip-flops. But Johnson has his weaknesses too, and one is that the dark side of his forcefulness is a tendency to bluster. Hunt picked him up effectively on ducking questions and avoiding answers.
All in all, the event will have given him more profile but done Johnson no harm. Which means that, for the front-runner, yesterday evening looks like Mission Accomplished. He came; he hufflepuffed; he survived – and sometimes managed to send up, with that comic timing of his, the stageiness of the event. As Hunt put it, Johnson was “peddling optimism”. He was decrying this but the audience seemed to like it.
For better or worse, we hoped yesterday that Hunt would test Johnson by hitting him hard. Maybe we should have been careful what we wished for. Perhaps the pair will kiss and make up on results day: after all, Johnson will need Hunt. But the former is taking the risk of seeking to maximise his vote in this election rather than his chances of being, say, appointed Johnson’s deputy. Now on to Andrew Neil later this week.