Rory Stewart takes centre stage as Tories play politics in TV debate

To deal or not to deal is the question as live event becomes ‘Hamlet’ without the prince

Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab and Rory Stewart take part in a live television debate on Channel 4 for the Tory leadership candidates,  in Stratford, east London. Photograph: Tim Anderson/Channel 4/PA Wire

Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab and Rory Stewart take part in a live television debate on Channel 4 for the Tory leadership candidates, in Stratford, east London. Photograph: Tim Anderson/Channel 4/PA Wire

 

It was Hamlet without the prince, or a play within the play of a Conservative leadership contest that may be over before it’s begun. Five candidates stood at podiums for the Channel 4 News debate, with an empty place in the middle for Boris Johnson, the shy frontrunner to succeed Theresa May as Britain’s prime minister.

Johnson is also avoiding hustings before Westminster political journalists on Monday, but he has agreed to take part in a BBC debate that comes after MPs vote in the next round of the leadership contest on Tuesday. In his absence on Sunday, former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab served as a proxy for the argument that Britain must leave the EU by the end of October, with or without a deal.

A vein throbbing angrily above his right temple, Raab said that every option, including suspending parliament to push through a no-deal Brext, must remain on the table. The other four dismantled Raab’s argument, but none more eloquently than Rory Stewart, who will struggle to stay on the ballot after Tuesday.

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Sunday’s debate may represent one step in uncovering Boris Johnson’s conscience

Stewart was the unrivalled star of the evening, winning louder, longer and more frequent applause than any other candidate. His contemptuous dismissal of the “machismo” of would-be leaders promising to secure a better Brexit deal struck a chord with the studio audience. Asked about their greatest weakness, the other candidates humblebragged about their impatience and stubbornness, but Stewart spoke about his ignorance and admitted that he sometimes changed his mind.

Potentially formidable

Stewart has made himself a potentially formidable opponent for Johnson in a face-off before the party membership, but he remains a rank outsider. Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt made no mistakes that threatened his second place behind Johnson, and Michael Gove reminded MPs of his sharp debating skills.

Sajid Javid had some good moments when he spoke about experiencing racism, but he is a wooden performer who has failed to make his case to be the next prime minister.

Johnson will easily survive the embarrassment of dodging Sunday’s debate rather than facing hostile fire from five rivals. His team hopes that he will face Hunt in the final stage of the contest and that the histrionic efforts of Gove and Stewart in Sunday’s debate will be, like those of the players in Hamlet, all for Hecuba.

In Hamlet, the play within the play served to expose the prince’s uncle Claudius as his father’s murderer and “uncover the conscience of the king”. Sunday’s debate may represent one step in uncovering Johnson’s conscience, as Conservative MPs and members consider their own.

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