The Final Showdown, as the Sun/Talkradio’s debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt was billed, clarified some important points for Tory members still deciding how to cast their vote. Both candidates ruled out a general election before the UK leaves the EU, though Hunt warned that setting a deadline as Johnson has means we could ‘trip ourselves into an accidental general election before October 31’.
Both men were also clear that the backstop has had its day, with Hunt declaring it ‘dead’. The Foreign Secretary talked up technological solutions to the Irish border, while stressing the need for a ‘cast-iron guarantee’ to Dublin that there would be no hard border. Johnson wanted to remit the details until after Brexit but echoed Hunt’s comments on technology and the border.
Two matters on which the candidates parted ways were tax and immigration. Johnson briefly defended his tax cuts for higher-earners before pivoting to an attack on Jeremy Corbyn, whom he warned would even ‘tax your garden’. Hunt stuck to his plans for tax cuts lower down the scale. His pledge that Britons would be able to earn £1,000 a month before paying any income tax or National Insurance was a crisp, clear statement of intent.
On immigration, Johnson refused to ‘get into a numbers game’ with moderator Tom Newton Dunn, saying ‘control’ was more important. There was another outing for his Australian-style points system, on which he is noticeably light on detail but which would give him leeway to oversee an increase in immigration. Hunt repeated the Theresa May line that people wanted numbers to go down, adding in an unfortunate turn of phrase that we should be training up ‘our own people’. Johnson, the supposed ‘right-winger’ in this contest, gave the more ‘moderate’ answer but it’s unlikely to hurt him with the anti-immigration membership. They want Brexit. He is Mr Brexit. The end.
Both were optimistic about a trade deal with the United States, though Hunt was more sceptical about timing, more or less agreeing with Philip Hammond’s remark that agreements of such complexity simply aren’t concluded within 12 months. Hunt also dismissed fears about chlorine-washed chickens and insisted: ‘We are not going to put the NHS up for sale in any trade deal.’
It’s not a matter likely to detain the thoughts of many Tory members but the candidates were quizzed on Donald Trump’s racist comments about four ethnic minority Democrat congresswomen, whom he suggested ‘go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came’. The Foreign Secretary gave a solid answer by citing his own half-Chinese children and describing how appalled he would be if someone were to address them in similar terms. Johnson assessed the President’s Twitter outburst unbecoming of a modern, multiracial society but neither would affix the label ‘racist’ to Trump’s language.
Other newslines that emerged include both confirming they would not join a US-led war to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and both suspecting that Jeremy Corbyn might be ‘personally anti-Semitic’. When the phrase was put to them, Hunt said ‘unfortunately, he may be’, while Johnson replied: ‘By effectively condoning anti-Semitism, he is culpable of that vice’. Both stuck to May’s climate change targets and, more mercurially, backed Amber Rudd to win Love Island. Johnson won applause when he refused to talk about his private life with Carrie Symonds, deeming it ‘unfair’ on his loved ones who can’t answer back in public.
Two final points worth noting. Johnson ramped up his spiel about ‘believing in Britain’ and banishing ‘defeatism’, essaying that ‘we haven’t believed in ourselves enough’ and ‘people in this country are fed up being told what they can’t do’. Later, in response to a question about charisma, Hunt pointedly said it wasn’t a matter of telling people what they wanted to hear. ‘That’s not optimism,’ he concluded, ‘that’s trickery’.
Johnson is advocating the Josh Groban doctrine: ‘Believe in what you feel inside/ And give your dreams the wings to fly/ You have everything you need/ If you just believe.’ Throughout this contest there has been little confronting of the hard realities that lie ahead but, if the debate audience was anything to go by — and it almost certainly is — Conservative members ostentatiously do not care. Again, they want Brexit. The end.
There was a good deal of amiable joshing up on the stage. After Johnson agreed with him on a number of points, Hunt quipped: ‘Join my Cabinet, Boris… you’re showing real talent’. He also joked about Boris being in Number 11 soon and, after Johnson kept on echoing him, grinned: ‘Have you voted yet?’ They were, as Johnson put it, ‘in glutinous harmony’ and it was all so grating. We are choosing a Prime Minister — no, scratch that: one is being chosen for us — and neither the import of the office nor the weight of the moment has much burdened the Tories’ summer of self-regard.
Neither Johnson nor Hunt is up to the job — though the former is demonstrably less up to it than the latter — yet one of them will soon be responsible for the fate of nation. Johnson chalks up the absence of Brexit to a deficit of magical thinking, as though clapping our hands with a little more ardour will keep Tinkerbell alive. Hunt is more reality-based but his much-vaunted plan seems to involve rocking up to Brussels and thereafter Parliament to announce that he is not Theresa May. Indeed he is not, and there is no guarantee that any new deal he is able to extract won’t be worse than the one she secured.
My right-wing friends appeal to me: ‘Come on, Stephen. Boris or Hunt — either one would be better than Corbyn.’ Of course they would, but what a dismally low bar we now have.