The first televised Tory leadership debate drew as much attention for who wasn’t there as who was. After Boris Johnson decided to avoid the Channel 4 leadership debate on the grounds that voters had had enough blue-on-blue action (and perhaps also that as the Tory leadership frontrunner he has little to gain and much to lose from such an event), the broadcaster decided to effectively empty-chair him – putting up a lectern where he would have been. It then fell to Johnson’s leadership rivals Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab, Rory Stewart and Michael Gove to provide the substance of the 90-minute programme.
It kicked off with enough blue-on-blue attacks for the Johnson campaign to have some cover over their decision to give it a miss. Rory Stewart accused his rivals of adopting a ‘macho’ approach to Brexit. Meanwhile, Raab accused Stewart of adopting a Venezuelan approach to Brexit with his suggestion of a citizen’s assembly. Hunt swiped at Johnson over his absence: ‘If Boris’s team won’t let him out to debate five pretty friendly colleagues, how will he get on with 27 EU countries.’ With Johnson absent, there appeared to be a ‘get Raab’ flavour to the proceedings with the other four candidates turning on Raab for refusing to rule out proroguing Parliament to deliver Brexit by the end of October. Javid was particularly spiky on the issue suggesting such behaviour was befitting of a dictator: ‘You don’t deliver democracy by trashing democracy. We are not selecting a dictator.’
So, what did we learn? The five-person format meant that the candidates were able to dodge some of the more pressing questions. Each candidate managed to fairly successfully set out their pitch in their closing remarks. Michael Gove positioned himself throughout as a serious leader who has a proven track record in government for getting things done. Hunt was keen to play up his business credentials, suggesting that only he would be able to successfully renegotiate the deal. Sajid Javid was fairly well received by the audience when he said that the way to beat the Brexit party was not by becoming the Brexit party. His answer on how he would unite the country saw him talk about his backstory and the racist abuse he has personally received over the years. Raab cemented his position as the most committed Brexiteer – deal or no deal – in the studio even if it was a message that failed to resonate particularly with the live audience. As for Stewart, he pitched himself as the outsider who had gone from 100/1 odds to being on the verge of making it to the final two. While the contenders clashed on Brexit, on domestic issues they found plenty to agree on.
With Johnson already winning the support of enough MPs to make the final two (so long as it holds), tonight’s debate was really for the remaining candidates to battle it out for the second spot ahead of the next MPs’ ballot on Tuesday. In that vein, there was no clear winner this evening. Both Stewart and Javid will, however, likely be the happiest with their performance – both had something to prove going into it as they are lagging behind in MP nominations. In that vein, the Stewart campaign did appear to get something good out of it. After the debate ended, Conservative MP Margot James – who had been backing Matt Hancock before he dropped out on Friday – took to social media to say that she had been so impressed by Stewart she would now back him in the leadership contest. There is a concern amongst some of the other Cabinet candidate campaigns that Stewart is the one gaining momentum right now.