Limitations of Tory hopefuls on full display in ill-tempered debate

Rory Stewart is emerging as the only candidate with a chance of defeating Boris Johnson

The five remaining candidates to succeed Theresa May as British prime minister partake in a live televised debate, clashing over Brexit and the Irish Border. Video: BBC/Reuters

 

The BBC’s Conservative leadership debate was chaotic, ill-tempered and noisy, with the characteristic weaknesses of the remaining five candidates on full display.

Frontrunner Boris Johnson was blustering and evasive, seeking to soften every commitment with dodges and qualifications. Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt struggled to make an impression or to articulate a distinctive vision.

Environment secretary Michael Gove, whose campaign has been damaged by revelations about his former drug use, brought the debating tactics of the Oxford Union into the studio. And insurgent Rory Stewart, who came under attack from the other candidates, was often fidgety and detached as if he was impatient with the whole process.

Home secretary Sajid Javid, who barely escaped elimination in the second MPs’ ballot on Tuesday, put in a strong performance. And he successfully bounced the other candidates into committing to an independent investigation into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party.

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For all the testy exchanges and mutual denunciations, the debate is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the leadership contest, which will accelerate over the next two days. But the outcome of Tuesday’s vote by MPs, announced two hours before the debate began, has opened up the possibility of a dramatic upset.

Conservative party leadership contenders Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart appear on BBC TV’s debate. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/via Reuters
Conservative party leadership contenders Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart appear on BBC TV’s debate. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/via Reuters

The second MPs’ ballot left Johnson in first place with a modest increase in his support to 126, followed at a distance by Hunt and Gove, each of whom added only a handful of votes to their total. Javid escaped elimination without a single vote to spare and hard Brexiteer Dominic Raab was knocked out.

The big winner was Stewart, who almost doubled his vote to 37, gaining more votes between rounds than any other candidate, including Johnson. Stewart’s momentum could stall on Wednesday as almost all of Raab’s supporters are expected to move behind Johnson.

But with Hunt underperforming as a candidate and Gove damaged, MPs who want to stop Johnson could switch to Stewart. His unconventional, straight-talking campaign is making the risk averse Johnson look dull rather than dangerous and disruptive, and Stewart is emerging as the only candidate with a chance of defeating him.

Johnson could emerge less as Britain’s Donald Trump than its Hillary Clinton

Johnson’s supporters warn that a face-off with Stewart would mean weeks of damaging “blue-on-blue” action that will undermine their candidate’s premiership after his inevitable victory among the party membership. Conservative party members have rejected cast-iron frontrunners in the past, choosing David Cameron over the apparently unbeatable David Davis.

Faced with Stewart’s guerrilla campaign, Johnson could emerge less as Britain’s Donald Trump than its Hillary Clinton – tired, cautious and heading for a fall.

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