London, United Kingdom – The frontrunner to become Britain’s next prime minister edged precariously one step closer to Downing Street last night after an at times messy television debate largely spared him from detailed scrutiny of his Brexit policy.
However, Boris Johnson – who has pledged to take the UK out of the European Union on October 31 without a withdrawal deal – came under pressure in the BBC discussion over tax cut pledges and comments that have earned him a reputation as reckless.
Upstart rival Rory Stewart – who has pledged to avoid a “no deal” Brexit at all costs – was unable to capitalise on unexpected momentum he had gained earlier in the day during a second poll among Conservative MPs, who are whittling down the field of candidates.
“My colleagues and I all came to the same conclusion – we felt it was a bit of a rabble really,” said Dr Anthony Ridge-Newman, a senior lecturer at Liverpool Hope University and the head of conservatism studies in the UK.
“There is no clear narrative coming out because all the candidates are trying to compete with each other.”
Dr David Jeffery, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool who has studied the Conservative Party, described the debate as “a bit of a farce” in which members of the public posing questions to the candidates clearly came away dissatisfied.
“Nobody moved away from their pre-prepared scripts. At some points Boris Johnson looked a bit uncomfortable – but there was nothing there that changed the status quo.”
All eyes on Johnson
The debate was the first in which the Brexit approach proposed by Johnson – who was “empty chaired” in a similar programme on Sunday by broadcaster Channel 4 for refusing to turn up – could be dissected in public.
Although his bid to become Conservative leader and, as a result, Britain’s prime minister, now appears unstoppable – in a vote earlier in the day Johnson secured the support of 126 out of 313 Conservative MPs – but critics say he remains vulnerable.
His campaign strategy has been to keep a low profile and avoid journalists, despite being a highly paid newspaper columnist himself whose florid language often gets him into trouble – once comparing Muslim women in burqas to “letterboxes”.
Jeffery said: “Boris Johnson was definitely muted – he wasn’t forcing himself into the spotlight because he doesn’t need to. His first choice would have been to not be there today. His second choice is to say as little as possible, and avoid making a gaffe.”
Staying below the parapet put Johnson at particular risk from attack by Stewart – who has openly denounced his Brexit strategy as bogus, and is the only candidate to rule out ‘no deal’.
In the debate the frontrunner’s pledge to cut taxes for high earners was also heavily criticised by other candidates.
Johnson told viewers: “We must come out on the October 31 because otherwise I am afraid we face a catastrophic loss of confidence in politics. The British people are getting thoroughly fed up. They were asked a question, they returned a verdict, the politicians said they were going to honour that verdict, and three years later we have still failed to leave.
“Unless we get out on October 31, I think we will all start to pay a really serious price.”
According to Ridge-Newman, by keeping his head down Johnson has enhanced his strategic position in the contest, which will eventually go to a final vote in July among 160,000 Conservative Party members.
“He has clearly been schooled in the last couple of weeks in terms of a very clear strategy to essentially make him come across as a lot more boring than we have ever seen Boris before.
“I actually think it is absolutely the right strategy for him, because although he didn’t really engage much in the debate or offer anything new or particularly interesting, it was absolutely his to lose.”
Stewart fires a blank
Stewart, who has scored well with television audiences but is not the favourite of Conservative Party members, failed to live up to the momentum he had gained in recent days.
Insisting that the way to unify a divided country was to be “honest and realistic”, he said: “If I were lucky enough to be your prime minister I am committed that there would never be ‘no deal’ – it is unnecessary, it is damaging, and it is so unnecessary and damaging that it is not even a credible threat.”
Jeffery said that despite Stewart’s leap in Tuesday’s ballot – in which he doubled his support – he had not come across well.
“He is saying basically the only thing we have got is Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, which is still hideously unpopular with Conservative Party members. So nothing has changed.”
Ridge-Newman added: “Stewart has been talked up a lot in the last couple of days and I think it is possibly even going to his head, because he was very awkward in the debate.”
Hunt, Gove and Javid
The race now appears to be on for second place to secure a slot in July’s final runoff among Conservative members, with foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt vying with environment secretary Michael Gove as the two most likely runners up.
Hunt told the BBC debate: “We have to resolve Brexit and we have to resolve this quickly because this is about the trust of the British people in people like us, the politicians, and whether we actually do what we are told or whether we impose our will – and we mustn’t let them down.”
Gove, an architect of the victory secured by the “Leave” campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum but damaged by an admission that he snorted cocaine, described Stewart’s approach as “cooled porridge”.
However, he admitted that a short delay after the October 31 Brexit deadline might be necessary to achieve the UK’s aims.
“You sometimes have extra time in football matches in order to slot home the winner,” he said. “My view is that the most important thing is to win for Britain and that means getting out, honouring the vote.”
Home secretary Sajid Javid – currently polling last among the five candidates – said: “One of the fundamental mistakes we have made so far is that we didn’t prepare well enough for ‘no deal’ – and that’s why we are in this mess today.”