Five hopefuls in a shallow arc of bar-stools. Last night, the BBC summoned the Tory candidates for a Brexit show trial overseen by Emily Maitlis. Michael Gove made an early impact with a burst of crazy egoism. ‘Because I started this, I will finish it.’ He forgot that countless campaigners such as Bill Cash, Dennis Skinner and (oddly enough) Jeremy Corbyn have been lobbying to extract Britain from Europe since long before Gove bought his first toot of coke.
Boris seemed genial but over-relaxed. He leaned back on his bar-stool like an embroidered pillow hoping no one would sit on him. No one did. He failed to impress but he got away with it. A gaffe-free night is a victory of sorts. Plenty of guff though. Here’s a sample:
‘Nobody wants a disorderly no-deal [Brexit] of that kind and I think actually there’s a wide measure of consensus that we must get out by 31st October. And that is the way we will get the deal we need.’
Jeremy Hunt was all niceness and decency. But his cheap smarm does him few favours. He treated the debate like a prize-giving ceremony at some pretentious sixth form college. ‘We are the party of business, of the Union, and of hope,’ he opined. The perfect son-in-law, absolutely. Hardly Downing Street material.
The Saj (aka Sajid Javid, home secretary) had a good evening. Both Gove and Hunt had suggested extending the 31st October deadline if necessary. The Saj pounced. Irresolution had been Theresa May’s greatest blunder, he warned. Never again. ‘A deadline focuses minds.’ He had the air of a seasoned general when he reminded everyone, ‘as someone who is responsible for security, I’ve done the work on this.’ Border Force are developing ‘existing technologies’ to solve the frontier problem in Ireland. Alone among the candidates, he articulated a Brexit solution that will work. ‘Change the backstop.’ Clear, strong and simple. Boris should nick it. He probably will.
The Johnson policy of non-engagement was helped by the chaotic format. Interruptions were constant. Each speaker was heckled by his neighbours all the time. Emily Maitlis tried to introduce discipline and clarity but she failed. It was like a ping-pong match played in a coconut-shy during an antiques auction.
Towards the end Gove managed to out-yell his opponents and force this soundbite onto the record.
‘Jeremy Corbyn, you discredited Marxist, get back into the dustbin of history where you belong.’
The EU’s hot favourite, Rory Stewart, had a rotten night. He looked ill-at-ease, tensely perched on his stool, with his feet on the ground, as if about to bolt for the door. At first he wore his tie neatly knotted at his throat but he took it off at some point and unbuttoned his shirt. The heat had got to him. He tried to skewer Boris on a technical detail about meat tariffs in Ulster where 80 per cent of sheep are sent to the Republic for slaughter. But his ambush was too clever. Concision was needed. He muffed it.
His solution for Brexit is to force Theresa May’s dead-duck deal through the House of Commons at the fourth attempt. He didn’t reveal how this miracle might be achieved. On public spending he talked of ditching red lines and inviting Labour to sit down for talks. Labour? He’s standing for the leadership of the Tory party. His flip-floppy, hands-across-the-aisle approach is clearly part of a different strategy – becoming Speaker.
My take-home tips. Saj up, Boris steady, Rory toast.