NEWS
19/06/2019 6:02 PM AEST

Four Things We Learned From The UK Conservative Party Leadership Debate

Analysis of the big day in the race to succeed Theresa May as Britain's next prime minister.

No Raab means no-deal Brexit less likely

As soon as this leadership race started, Boris Johnson’s most pressing aim was to reduce and eliminate the threat posed by hardline Brexiteer Dominic Raab. Having been hugely weakened by the former foreign secretary’s big lead in the first round, karate expert Raab was on Tuesday finally knocked out by a Johnson judo throw: I’m the man who will get us out of the EU ‘with or without a deal’. The sheer weight of support from no-deal MPs like Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood was enough to floor Raab. Job done.

But after the BBC leadership debate, the European Research Group (ERG) ultras may well be even more suspicious that they’ve been bamboozled by Boris. Most significantly of all, Johnson failed to give what the very first questioner wanted, a ‘guarantee’ that the UK would be out of the EU by October 31. He said his party would pay a serious price if that deadline wasn’t met and it was “eminently feasible”, but signally failed to repeat his previous firm pledge. Moreover, no one answered Rory Stewart’s question of how no-deal would get past parliament.

Sadly, Johnson wasn’t asked on the BBC whether Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement was ‘dead’. Several ERG members (including John Redwood) say that he’s told them personally it is and voted for him on that basis. Some were furious when they learned through Sky News of his weekend speech to business people, which suggested he could stick with the agreement but tinker with it. As with May, the sniff of betrayal is in the air. When Johnson said politicians need to act “maturely and soberly” was that a clue of a compromise ahead?

Michael Gove tried to remind everyone he was a committed Brexiteer before Johnson, but he confirmed for the first time that he could accept another delay to exit to December 31 (something Johnson was quick to pounce on). It was Sajid Javid who most obviously tried to court the 30 MPs who had backed Raab. He went his most full-on no-dealer mode to date, saying it was “fundamental” that Brexit happens by Halloween.

On the Irish border issue, none of the candidates had a new solution that could get past Brussels, Dublin or parliament. The forces of political gravity are much more powerful than any force of personality that each candidate assumes will win them the day. But Johnson seems to be banking the DUP and Tory Brexiteers will not abandon him.

With Raab now out of the race either by luck or design (or both), a lack of clarity can’t stop Johnson getting to No.10. His team will be pleased he didn’t commit a major gaffe on a day when he again increased his number of MP supporters. By Wednesday he could have more than half the parliamentary party in his pocket. Yet the issue of Brexit will return. As John Major, David Cameron and May all discovered, if you fail to give Brexiteers enough red meat, they will bite your arm off.

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Boris Johnson has a trust problem

Johnson’s big strength to date - all those one-on-one chats with MPs behind closed doors - could turn into his big weakness. That’s because on a range of issues in addition to Brexit, he appears to have been saying one thing to some supporters, and another to others.

In the debate, he appeared to water down a string of previous pledges. Just eight days after it first saw the light of day, he seemed to ditch his one major domestic policy announcement of this leadership campaign. A plan for tax cuts for those earning more than £55,000 was reduced from a pledge to a mere “ambition”. At one point he even said he had only started a “debate” on the issue.

On Heathrow too, Johnson was skewered by Emily Maitlis pointing out he had previously vowed to lie in front of the bulldozers for a new runway. He lamely said “I still have grave concerns” about the aviation expansion, but refused to say as PM he would stop it. The shiftiness was palpable.

It was on the imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe that Johnson looked most uncomfortable, so much so that he blundered into saying her continued jailing was nothing to do with his own error in implying she was a British spy - despite having previously admitted he had messed it up.

The repeated failure to remember Abdullah’s name (“our friend from Bristol”) was not a good look for a man who was meant to be answering a question on Islamophobia in the Tory party, and the references to his Turkish great grandfather sounded like poor compensation. His gripe that his Muslim ‘letterbox’ comments had been taken out of context sounded disingenuous to say the least. 

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Rorymania has its limits

Having made it his main mission to get into this TV event, Rory Stewart certainly managed to look (no tie, foot on floor) and sound different from the other four. His brand of compromise and get-realism will have sounded like a breath of fresh air for many viewers who have never seen him before.

However, Stewart’s only hope of progressing into the final two in this race is by hoping that somehow Javid or Hunt or Gove’s campaigns will implode and instead flock to him. And on Tuesday night’s performance that’s unlikely.

It was tax and spend that really did for him. Yes, he was right to point to a conservative tradition of not pledging tax or spending promises that can’t be paid for. But he was left sounding like a Labour or Lib Dem politician not a Tory leader when he failed to make the case for lower taxes at all. Javid made the case for tax cuts and Hunt won over the questioner with his plan to cut them for the lowest paid.

Stewart may be right that tax cuts are not a priority right now, but he didn’t then say that his gut feeling was to lower tax, something many Conservative members take as an item of faith. If he were campaigning for leader in the 1950s (or 1850s) he could get away with that, but not post-Thatcher.

The other area where Stewart’s innate gift for diplomacy was exposed as a weakness was on Donald Trump. Javid cleverly pounced on his reticence to stand up to the US president. Stewart’s mantra that he’s the only one in the race who shuns red lines ended up looking like weak prevarication. Realpolitik has its limits too.

Javid’s theatrical bouncing of his rivals into an independent investigation into Tory party Islamophobia was perhaps his most lasting contribution to the entire race.

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Corbyn was the ghost at the feast

What will have been striking for many is the admission by several of the contenders that some Tory cuts had actually been a bad thing. Several seemed to concede that school funding had been cut once rising populations are taken into account, rather than trot out the mantra that it has been increasing.

Jeremy Hunt admitted his own government had cut too much from social care. Yes, that’s the former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. He suggested that the Coalition had taken its eye off the cuts to local authorities, a claim that Tory as well as Labour council chiefs would say is pretty damning.

With no clear plan yet for the much touted ‘end of austerity’, it’s no wonder all five contenders said it was too soon to hold a general election. Given that criticism of austerity was what helped Jeremy Corbyn wipe the Tory majority in 2017, it was no surprise perhaps that Michael Gove spent at least four of his answers attacking the Labour leader. 

Yet it may well be the latest YouGov poll - which showed that stopping Corbyn was the only thing Tory members believe is more of a priority than delivering Brexit -  that loomed most in the debate. Gove was determined to remind Tory MPs that he recently laid into Corbyn at the despatch box.

However, it may be Boris Johnson who benefits most from that poll finding. Clearly more popular than Gove with both the public and party members, he knows his twin asset is he can woo Nigel Farage voters while taking the fight to Labour.