‘Where there’s a will, there’s a whey.’ Boris jokes as Hunt feels the chill
Johnson pushes audience’s buttons and overshadows his Tory leadership rival
From the moment Boris Johnson marched onstage, hair mussed up and head pushing forward, it was clear he had the audience at Manchester Central convention centre on his side.
“Great to be here in Manchester, home of free trade. And of course Britain is once again going to be the great champion of global free trade – once we get something done,” he said to cheers and applause.
Inside the icy, air-conditioned auditorium, the mostly middle-aged and elderly Conservatives were still dressed for the muggy heat outside, the men in short-sleeved shirts and the women in light cotton frocks. They were here for the fifth hustings of the Conservative leadership contest, a week before 160,000 party members receive their ballot papers to choose between Johnson and his successor as foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
A week earlier, in Birmingham, Johnson had refused to answer questions about the police calling to his partner Carrie Symonds’s flat after a noisy row between them. For a few days, Johnson’s campaign appeared to be wobbling but after doubling down on his hardline approach to Brexit and soaking up the adulation of supporters, the candidate has returned to form.
After a blurry sketch of his strategy for persuading the EU to change the withdrawal agreement (“the money – we should suspend that in a state of creative ambiguity over the talks”) he took a bash at Project Fear.
“They said there won’t be any whey or glucose or milk solids for the Mars bars on which our children depend,” he said, meandering into a joke with the punchline “where there’s a will, there’s a whey”.
Johnson’s pitch is that he will deliver Brexit with or without a deal and return the Conservatives to electoral success by governing the country in the consensual way he ran London. A cabinet minister for two years, Johnson was nonetheless shocked to discover during the current campaign that education is underfunded and broadband coverage patchy.
He handled questions from the audience deftly, pushing the audience’s buttons with attacks on the nanny state, liberal policies on crime and above all, Jeremy Corbyn.
“This is a guy whose economic policies would be absolutely catastrophic for this country. He would put up inheritance tax, pension tax, income tax, corporation tax ... tax on gardens, my friends. If that doesn’t make your blood run cold, I don’t know what will,” he said.
For a few days, Hunt looked as if he might be a more formidable opponent for Johnson than anyone had expected. His performance at the first hustings in Birmingham was sharper than Johnson’s, with a refreshingly thoughtful approach and a command of detail.
He followed it up with attacks on Johnson’s failure to take part in debates and on the frontrunner’s implausible promises on Brexit. In Manchester, however, much of the fight appeared to have gone out of Hunt as he sought to play down the two candidates’ differences over Brexit.
“If we get to the beginning of October and we don’t have a deal we can get through parliament, then I will leave without a deal on October 31st. Because I think any day beyond March 29th this year is a day too long. I don’t think that my position and the position of Boris are particularly different,” he said.
The applause Hunt received was a faint echo of Johnson’s, even when he told the audience what they wanted to hear. The biggest cheer of the night came when moderator Iain Dale read out a Twitter post announcing that Olly Robbins was standing down as chief Brexit negotiator.
Hunt said he would not “say something bad” about a civil servant who had worked hard but he was unable to call up a word of praise for Robbins, who secured a withdrawal agreement from the EU that respected Theresa May’s almost impossible red lines.
Hunt’s craven diffidence gained him nothing, however. The room was now too cold for the audience’s thin cotton clothing, the evening was getting late and two by two, they started to drift away.