Tonight’s debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt was a feisty affair. The pair clashed repeatedly over the October 31st Brexit deadline, tax policy and Donald Trump. The mood of the debate was summed up when Boris Johnson was asked what he most admired about Jeremy Hunt and replied, ‘his ability to change his mind’. Hunt shot back that he most admired Boris Johnson’s ability to avoid answering the question.
The Brexit section of the debate was dominated by the question of whether the UK would leave on October 31st or not. Jeremy Hunt pushed Boris Johnson on whether he would resign if that didn’t happen, Boris Johnson dodged before saying that he wouldn’t want to give the EU an incentive not to come to an agreement. Boris Johnson then accused Jeremy Hunt of being ‘defeatist’ for already conceding that the October 31st deadline might not be met.
Hunt’s problem in the Brexit section was that he wanted to emphasise the dangers of no deal, but is still saying he’ll do it, and why the October 31st deadline might not be possible, but he still put his hand up when asked if the UK would be out by then. This hedging limits Hunt’s ability to prosecute his argument. When Hunt put his hand up to the UK being out by October 31st, Boris Johnson rather mockingly declared ‘that’s the spirit, Jeremy’. It was an effective moment.
The second half of the debate was dominated by Trump and tax. Hunt was crisp and clear that he would keep Kim Darroch in post and criticised Trump for his tweeting. Boris Johnson was more evasive, and obviously keen to avoid saying anything that could cause a rupture with the White House. It was his weakest moment of the debate but some of his allies argue it was worth taking the heat given the importance of the relationship. On tax, Hunt attacked Boris Johnson for wanting to raise the threshold for the 40p rate. This policy has bedevilled Johnson in this campaign, and been steadily downgraded. But I suspect that it isn’t as unpopular with Tory members as some think.
In the morning, the Johnson camp will be the happier of the two. Why, because despite Hunt getting in several jabs there was no game changing moment in this debate. Friday night’s interviews with Andrew Neil will be tough for both candidates—it’ll be much harder for them to dodge questions with Andrew Neil holding them to account. But by then, more than sixty percent of Tory members will have voted.