Tonight’s Sun debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt was far more relaxed than last week’s head-to-head clash. But it was also stuffed with news lines, as both men prepared for the final few days of voting in the Tory leadership contest. Both declared the Northern Irish backstop dead, Johnson ruled out an election before Brexit happens, and they both attacked Donald Trump for telling black and minority ethnic congresswomen to ‘go back’.
On Brexit, the answer that Johnson gave about the backstop showed how likely it is that he might pursue a no-deal Brexit: he rejected a time limit or unilateral exit clause. This makes a confrontation with Conservative colleagues who are trying to block a no-deal exit more likely, which means the next few months are going to be rather wild in the Tory party. That said, there was much more good humour between the two candidates tonight, with the pair joking about offering one another jobs. Hunt even came to Johnson’s rescue when asked who he would be living with in Downing Street, quipping that Boris would be ‘living with me’, in Number 11 while Hunt occupied Number 10 as Prime Minister. Perhaps both are now mindful of the need to encourage the party to come back together now that the contest is nearly over.
Both were also mindful of the need for Britain to continue working with the President of the United States, refusing to call him a ‘racist’. Both disagreed with what Trump had said, but also argued that ‘that sort of language’ would make it difficult for them to have a constructive relationship with him in the future.
The whole event was rather convivial, with endless jokes about how much the pair were agreeing. But of course, there were areas where they diverged: Hunt promised to get net migration down, while Johnson didn’t. They still clashed over priorities for tax cuts, with Boris remaining rather rattled that he had attracted so much criticism for promising to cut the higher rate. His argument this time was much more cogent than previously, pointing out that good public sector workers were being sucked into the higher rate, too, as well as the importance of driving growth.
But it was clear that for both candidates, the biggest uncertainty now isn’t the result of the contest, but whether the Tory party can hang together in the months ahead. Expect to hear lots more forced chumminess in an attempt to answer that question.