The Leadership Debate: A One-Horse Race on Three-Legged Stools

By Martin Townsend

Wednesday 19th June

If last night’s BBC Tory debate was a Friends episode it would have been ‘The One With The Stools’. An episode unlikely to be watched again on Comedy Central.

Perched precariously in a semi-circle, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart seemed uniformly ill at ease, with only Stewart seeming tall enough to keep his feet on the ground. If that seemed a positive omen for the resurgent dawdler of Afghanistan, it was ill-starred.

Emily Maitlis, flinty and unhelpful to any candidate, went for irritation rather than interrogation and barely landed a punch: letting Boris Johnson off the hook on his lack of detail and fecklessness in favour of his gaffe over the British teacher held in Iran. Boris, with his new tie and hair make-over, denied the error and sailed on. A nation shrugged.

If ‘words really do have consequences’, as they allegedly had in that teacher’s case, why did the BBC adopt a format that so easily let the candidates of the hook?

Rory Stewart, meanwhile, removed his neckwear, Magic Mike style, and threw a series of martyred contortions. Ill at ease with himself or attention-seeking? Either way he had reached Peak Rory, neatly self-immolating at one point with the line: ‘We do not need more tax cuts’. Elderly majors in Gloucestershire will have choked on their Gordon’s at that one.

Sajid Javid, at one with Boris on keeping to the October 31st Brexit deadline, was endearing and normal blokey, but a little too eager to corral his colleagues like Shirley Temple in an old movie: ‘Hey, let’s all stop being Islamophobic right here.’ A faltering attempt to show off his leadership credentials.

Gove, po-faced and funereal in ill-advised dark tie, twittered on about the various ‘plans’ he had, oblivious to the fact that the nation currently views ‘plans’ with the same enthusiasm as a hospital sandwich. But his assertion that Corbyn is a ‘Marxist’ who should be consigned to the ‘dustbin of history’, was the sort of weapons-grade oratory that might carry him into the final two.

Jeremy Hunt, stiff and concentrating too hard was largely anonymous, expressing his sincerity as if it was the difficult last blob in a tube of toothpaste. Challenged on whether he supported Donald Trump’s Tweet criticising London Mayor Sadiq Khan he referred to his wife who may or may not be Chinese and his mixed-race children who ‘looked different’ to underline his right-on credentials. But it was awkward and unconvincing.

The questioners were direct from BBC central casting: the Imam, the teenage, climate change waif. They entered the debate and were swiftly wafted, away (Gove scoring a late point in the Tory heartlands by admonishing 15year old Erin for skipping school to save the world). Only Boris seemed truly sincere about feeding buns to the elephant in the room: leading Brexit back into the conversation repeatedly while his colleagues furiously virtue-signalled or got lost in a fog of carbon emissions.  ‘We have already kicked the can down the road twice and I think the British people are getting thoroughly fed up,’ Boris harrumphed, neatly summing up how many viewers must have felt.

As a group, the auditioning PMs were more Take That than The 1975, with Boris as Robbie Williams: undoubtedly talented, but more than slightly unreliable. Basking in a possibly Lynton Crosby-induced calm and seemingly untouchable at 80 points ahead in the second ballot, he’ll almost certainly be given the nod as PM, but it will come with a very, very short leash.

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