By Jake Weatherill
Last night gave us another voyeuristic glimpse of our potential next Prime Minister (well, most of them) as Channel 4 hosted the first of The Conservative Leadership Debates.
While I would usually eschew such a gathering of figures I thought ‘Well, if I don’t get to pick the fucker I may as well see what they’re like’. On the plus side it means you’re likely to get two articles from me this week, so swings and roundabouts I guess!
Our field of candidates (or maybe rogue’s gallery would be more apt) was composed of Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and, conspicuous by his absence, frontrunner Boris Johnson.
With the first half hour almost exclusively about Brexit it was like watching four alpha’s clashing over the last morsels of food as Gove, Hunt, Javid and Raab were all keen to show that their own no nonsense style of negotiation would solve the problems of the EU’s refusal to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement.
That was until Stewart ended what was descending into what I can only assume was a pre-rehearsed interpretive dance of the surrealist works of Salvador Dali by the other four, pointing out that this was no more than machismo on the other four candidates parts rather than an acceptance of the reality of the situation they currently face. I would love to tell you Boris’s response but it isn’t fit for print as there wasn’t one.
When it came to their aspirations for the future of Britain beyond Brexit, the overwhelming focus for most candidates was education, with Gove, Javid and Raab all suggesting that they wish to provide significant overhauls to our current system, while Hunt and Stewart said improving social care was their priority (even if Hunt’s poorly worded answer gave the impression he intended to personally wish that all elderly people would be dead).
Interestingly none of the candidates mentioned the NHS. Given the fury that followed Donald Trump’s hastily back tracked declaration that it would have to be on the table in any trade deal this could be a worrying omission by the candidates.
Of their weaknesses we got some surprising candidness from all candidates as Gove and Raab suggested their impatience was their biggest downfall, while Hunt and Javid suggested they could be too stubborn for their own good. Stewart with great humility essentially admitted his own ignorance was his limitation, further underlining the brilliance of his guerilla campaign.
Individually it’s fair to say the biggest loser was Johnson. While it may appear to be a canny tactic by his team to reduce media appearances given his tendency to be his own worst enemy, missing the only debate that will feature a studio audience (made up of swing voters) shows a shadowy nature to his campaign that is relying more on his person charisma than his actual political ability. It could come back to bite him in the arse down the road.
Gove came across as entirely insincere as he tried to rebuild support after taking a hit with Cokegate. Javid seemed alot more assured than you would expect someone who only today admitted they were not the best public speaker. Raab did a half decent job in trying to convince people he isn’t so old school that issues like equality are beyond him, but still failed to address his comments on Proroguing Parliament beyond ‘it’s not likely’. While none were exactly losers, they were not winners either, and given the mixture of lukewarm to non-existent audience support it is hard to see how they intend to win over the very people they can’t connect with.
The winner was without a doubt Stewart. He connected with the audience, showing great humility while demonstrating that he alone of the remaining candidates is in tune with the reality of the situation we face, rather than feeding the Unicorns of Brexit fanatics.
If you were to ask me who of the six so far has convinced me they may be the person to guide The Conservative Party out of this rut of being out of touch it’s him. Plain and simple. He can appeal to a new generation of Conservatives, and if he doesn’t win this don’t be surprised if he becomes the figure head for the moderates and progressives of that party. Maybe even a leader in waiting.
And that’s a wrap. I will be back Wednesday with a verdict on the BBC debate.