I’m not sure we learned terribly much this from the rather noisy BBC debate this evening. Each Tory candidate had rehearsed the answers so well that they sounded like pull-string dolls at times. If you watched Ch4’s debate on Sunday – conducted along the lines of its old Fifteen-to-One gameshow – you’ll have heard many of these lines before. Michael Gove strong on his own reforming record and Corbyn-baiting, not so strong on the economy. Sajid Javid a bit more willing to use his biography as strategy, at one point having his rival candidates agree to an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Tory party (although I’m not sure how far this will endear him to the Tories whose votes he is seeking). Jeremy Hunt coming up with a more interesting version of his life story, cramming in yet-more references to his status as an entrepreneur and, this time, to his mixed-race children. Rory Stewart struggled to get in on the debate, and couldn’t explain to Gove how he’d pass a Withdrawal Agreement that has already been rejected three times by parliament. He ended up visibly uncomfortable on the stool, took his tie off and ended up in full Florence of Belgravia mode wishing “Salaam Alaikum” to an imam. He grumbled later that the “format didn’t really work” for him. Interestingly, he drew more fire from Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt, both of whom bookmakers now expect him to beat and reach the final two.
But the candidate we haven’t seen in this environment before was Boris Johnson. And he was… well, okay. This wasn’t vintage Boris, but a quieter and better-kempt version with his verbal safety catch firmly on. He dealt with difficult questions by avoiding them. When he was asked comparing women in niqabs to letterboxes, he asked for a mass forgiveness everything he has written over the last 30 years. Then spoke about his Muslim great-grandfather. He got off rather lightly when asked by a Brexit Party voter what he’d do to cut taxes for the low-paid. His answer is: nothing. He promises tax cuts for the richest 10pc in the top tax bracket, but no more. And those plans to raise the top rate of tax threshold to £80k? Downgraded to an ambition, it seems. He wouldn’t even be pinned down on October 31 as an exit day, refusing to issue a “guarantee”. Now that Dominic Raab has dropped out, he can soften his Brexit stance. But there was no humiliation, no disaster.
And no hard questioning either – which is inevitable when the chair has four other candidates to get through. This mass format, with questions asked by voters who appear on a TV screen, makes close scrutiny pretty much impossible. Boris is so far ahead with the MPs that he didn’t need to impress: he just needed not to bomb. And he didn’t.
It’s often said that the only person who can stop Boris now is Boris. He passed up the opportunity to self-destruct tonight. And, in so doing, came a lot closer to No10.