LAST night the BBC hosted the second televised Conservative Party leadership debate, thankfully improving on the risible first debate.
The BBC’s format was superior to Channel 4’s in that no live audience was present (public questions were taken by video link), so we got a more naturalistic impression of how these colleagues interact.
The commonality with the Channel 4 debate was an egotistical host, Emily Maitlis, ready to interrupt with contempt, editorialise with ignorance, and batter the candidates with their supposedly offensive statements of the past. Consequently, almost nobody finished an answer. A smarter studio and a smarter host belied the usual mainstream media dysfunctions.
The contestants numbered five as before: Boris Johnson had joined; Dominic Raab had been eliminated a few hours earlier during the second round of voting by Tory MPs.
The contestants were much more combative this time. Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid were sitting as the middle three (supposedly ordered by lottery). By the BBC’s design, they turned towards the host and Boris on their right, and were ready to focus their argumentativeness on Boris. Boris tended to sit still and look past everybody, tapping his toe, sticking out his head, and posing Churchillian, but he looked gloomy and isolated.
‘Rory’ Rod Stewart had been most combative the first time around. More clearly than ever, he was over-compensating for lack of substance. Strangely, he had chosen to shed his tie, making him seem more like the bolshy Jeremy Corbyn than his usual pose as the slimy Tony Blair. He leaned on one hip with his legs splayed like a clichéd cowboy, or sat upright, appealing to the heavens, looking at the host and shaking his head with a smile of disbelief, or frowning with mock pain at his shoes. Again, he was readiest to talk over his colleagues but to demand their silence. Almost everything he said was critical but without alternatives. He was taken to task on occasion by colleagues who had played nice on Sunday, and are now scared by the media darling who has risen from ninth place to fourth.
Again, Gove was most emphatic and confident. Again, he was best at talking through and correcting the rude host.
Javid had learnt something – he leaned in, commanded, raised his voice, and betrayed his exasperation with Stewart: I’ve never seen him emote so much. Hunt was more substantive, but still balances unconvincingly between continuity and conversion.
The first question was from a Conservative Party member who had voted for the Brexit Party in the recent EU elections: he asked when Brexit would be delivered.
Johnson committed to 31 October. Hunt and Gove allowed for more time, although Gove committed ‘absolutely’ to leaving the EU in 2019 and notioned that the extra time would be measured in days. Javid asserted that ‘we must have a deadline’, which essentially agreed with Boris, who nodded happily.
Johnson repeated his threat to withhold the £39billion that in 2017 Theresa May stupidly promised to the EU even before Brussels had promised anything in return. Javid said he would aim for a version of her Withdrawal Agreement without the Northern Irish backstop.
Stewart was full of pretentious metaphors: Parliament’s refusal to vote for no-deal is like a locked door and we’re looking for the key; he said he was being realistic by sticking with May’s WA, while the other candidates were ‘staring at the wall and saying believe in Britain’. Thankfully, he was interrupted. Stewart kept asking his colleagues how they could renegotiate Brexit even though the EU has said it would not. Since his colleagues had explained that the EU has interests in avoiding no-deal, and they were prepared to threaten no-deal (WTO Brexit), and the EU has U-turned before on its commitment not to renegotiate, Stewart looked increasingly shrill and shallow. However, I am sure his dogmatism plays well with Remainers who would never vote Tory anyway.
While Channel 4 had spent half its programme on Brexit, the BBC moved on quickly, sticking to scheduled questions, even though the host kept stealing time from the answers with pointless interruptions.
The next questioner asked about tax cuts: Maitlis reworked that question as an attack on Johnson’s commitment to raise the threshold for the highest rate of tax. Johnson stuck to his guns. Gove said he preferred to keep the revenues for spending on education (his strongest portfolio). Hunt wanted more spending on elderly care, again admitting that social care had failed in the six years that he was the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Stewart jumped on that again, saying that social care was a ‘disgrace’ needing a ‘revolution’ – but again he could not specify any policies, except to promise to spend more and be different from the rest. Fortunately, Gove pointed out that promising inclusiveness is not a policy for either social care or Brexit.
The questioner thanked Hunt for the most direct answer but told Stewart that he was ‘completely out of touch’ for ignoring the question in order to rehash his theme on Brexit.
Ironically, Stewart returned to taxes rather than answer the subsequent question, which was about public service cuts. Stewart stated – with typical sanctimony – that you can’t spend if you cut taxes. An unusually animated Javid pointed out to him that sometimes tax cuts can increase revenues via stimulated business. Nonetheless, when Stewart was given chance to answer a new question, about social care, he repeated his simplism on taxes.
Subsequent questions were not from Conservatives but from BBC central casting: one was worried that a no-deal Brexit would threaten her husband’s property business; one had a self-interest in mental health services; an imam assumed Islamophobia and asked if words matter; a 15-year-old asked for a commitment to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. This second half of the programme was useless: the candidates fell over each other to signal virtue without needing to specify policy.
As I predicted at the end of my analysis of the first debate, Johnson’s presence made for a more substantive second debate.
However, we’re still left with five candidates, most of whom are 2016 Remainers that now promise Brexit, and who prefer to call themselves liberals or centrists even as they want to lead the Conservative Party.