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The most clarity front runner Boris Johnson offered in the Tory leadership head to head on ITV last night was when he confirmed that he is “not actually prime minister at the moment.” The statement that best reflected his performance was when he got the year of the Brexit referendum wrong. Even for a candidate consistently criticised for being loose with the facts and careless with detail that was a surprise.
His challenger Jeremy Hunt was wide-eyed – perhaps a little too wide-eyed – and energised. But he’ll always look meek next to Boris. Hunt was better on the detail and less evasive – not a hard-won battle however. His plan to deliver Brexit was more fleshed out than Johnson’s, but neither has much of a legitimate leg to stand on. And even if Jeremy “I’m an entrepreneur” Hunt had managed to land any serious blows to Boris – which he didn’t – it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Boris can play as hard and fast with the policy detail as he wants, he still remains the firm favourite with those who get the final say.
Both candidates stood in front of a studio audience of 200 people, on what appeared to be the set of The Chase. They were grilled, held to account, and kept on the straight and narrow by a fierce Julie Etchingham. But even someone adopting such a no-nonsense approach to the squabbling couldn’t contain the nation’s foremost peddler of bluster from doing his thing. Both Etchingham and Hunt repeatedly tried to pin Boris down for a straight answer – on Sir Kim Darroch’s tenure as British Ambassador to the States, on whether he’ll resign as prime minister if he doesn’t take the UK out of the EU by 31st October, and on whether proroguing parliament was still on the cards. To no avail. On whether Darroch would keep his job until the end of its term if he was prime minister, Boris Johnson failed to answer four times. But took the cue to witter about the special relationship and the FCO.
Despite deftly pinning down Boris on his failure to answer questions, and methodically trotting out his pre-prepared but effective lines of attack, Hunt was left in Boris’s wake. Looking last night more Dragon’s Den hopeful than prime minister material, Hunt couldn’t beat Boris with directness (he often provided simple yes-no answers to Etchingham’s questions). Boris was right to chastise Hunt for his managerial style, and Hunt was left by the end desperately trying to match Boris’s verve in the hopes for a smattering of applause from the audience.
But Hunt made it out in one piece – Managerial? Yes. Evasive? No. Passable Statesman? Almost.
Throughout, Boris dodged, prevaricated and evaded while relying on his most consistent message – “believe in Britain”, we need more “optimism.” Hunt was right to think – and point out – that this attitude isn’t sufficient to get Brexit done, but he ought to be aware that repeatedly accusing Boris of being “an optimism-peddler” isn’t quite the blistering attack he might think.
Unedifying, and unencouraging. Who would have thought?
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