LAST night’s first televised Conservative Party leadership debate was surprising, but in few admirable ways.

Let’s consider style before substance (style is what most people will remember anyway). The broadcaster was Channel 4, which put everything in the hands of the uppity Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who had prepared to talk over and talk down the candidates. He had prepared to call each of them to task for a politically incorrect Tweet, drug use, flip-flop, or missed virtue signal. This was not the sort of host to force them deeper into their policies.

While I was unsurprised at The Guru, I was surprised by how unstatesmanlike these competitors looked. They had been in hustings and studios all week, supposedly perfecting their messages; they had received days of notice to prepare for this debate, but most looked awkward and flustered. They waffled, danced and spun. They mostly fulfilled our stereotype of the politician.

Jeremy Hunt was amiable, but as ever he looks as if he’s desperate for friends. He referred to his colleagues often, in order to piggy-back on their points; that involved agreeing with them, so he was difficult to differentiate. He was the most platitudinous – quite an achievement in this competition. His first specific promise was ‘to abolish illiteracy’ – a fake issue.

Rory Stewart was the most combative. He liked to lean menacingly into his neighbour Dominic Raab, to ask direct questions of his colleagues, then sneer at their answers, look up to the heavens, shake his head at his feet, with a despairing expression. He asked them to allow him to finish, but wasn’t above interrupting them. He criticised them generally for ‘machoism’ in pretending to know everything; he claimed to be a listener and thinker. Throughout, he posed as the intellectual, the enlightened – an act which The Conservative Woman has already debunked, but it played well with the Channel 4 audience.

Michael Gove was loud, confident, rapid, and bodily expressive. While the other candidates replied directly and respectfully to ‘Krish’, Gove spoke to camera or the audience. He was great at speaking through The Guru’s interruptions. At one point, without missing a beat, he said directly that The Guru is good at interrupting but now should listen – The Guru complied silently. Gove started strongly and finished strongest.

Dominic Raab was surprisingly shaky, nervous, stuttering and unconvincing. He didn’t often get past the usual platitudes, but even when he was specific the substance was not delivered memorably.

Sajid Javid was unhurried and emphatic, but still stuttered – from lack of clarity rather than lack of confidence. He blinked at The Guru’s rude interruptions and challenges. He did not come across as someone who could defeat the EU.

Of course, that’s only five of the six remaining candidates. Hunt took the opportunity after 27 minutes to postpone an answer by drawing attention to Boris Johnson’s absence and implying that Boris couldn’t be taken seriously to debate with foreign leaders if he couldn’t debate with Cabinet colleagues. Hmm . . . I don’t think Hunt was the best person to draw attention to anyone’s capacity to challenge foreign leaders.

No Deal Brexit

Brexit dominated the first 45 minutes – that was half the programme, but that 45 minutes was a heavy investment of time for the little we learned about their positions.

Stewart immediately confirmed his differentiation as the only one to stick with Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement and to rule out a ‘no-deal Brexit’ (WTO Brexit). The others allowed for a WTO Brexit, although they danced around rather than grasping the nettle, so we learnt little about what they would negotiate.

Raab differentiated himself as the only one present to have resigned from Theresa May’s Cabinet over her Brexit shambles, but the others preferred to draw attention to his refusal to rule out suspending Parliament to make sure that it didn’t prevent us leaving the EU on 31 October, as currently legislated.

Stewart was clearly ready to jump all over this – he kept calling on The Guru to let him intervene – and The Guru pursued the drama. Stewart repeated the simple script he’s been saying all week: he claimed he would call Parliament in another building; he would also convene what he calls a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ to work out a deal that Parliament could accept. He claimed that this would be more democratic. Raab and Stewart got into a testy but patchy exchange, until Raab fired a prepared jibe: Stewart’s citizens’ assembly would be undemocratic – a ‘Venezuela option’. Stewart had prepared a reply: suspending Parliament would be as undemocratic as Tony Blair’s behaviour before the Iraq War. He got loud applause. How ironic: Stewart supported New Labour and executed Blair’s policy at the time, but none of his competitors was so base as to point out that fact.

Stewart repeated the nonsense from his hustings speech that a ‘no-deal Brexit’ would be ‘no to trade’. Jeremy Hunt stupidly followed by saying he ‘agreed with Rory’ that a no-deal Brexit would upset our neighbours.

Javid got his best score by pointing out that Stewart was not ‘realistic’ to expect to break the Brexit deadlock by forming a citizens’ assembly with 450 folk selected at random from a phone book.

Stewart said a ‘no-deal Brexit would be complete nonsense’ because everybody agreed that they didn’t want economic catastrophe, for which he earned his other big applause. He got into his worst needling of Raab, until he was interrupted by The Guru to allow his competitors to answer the question.

Gove had the best play on Brexit, calling himself the leader of the Leave campaign (even though this was not quite true). He characterised Stewart as ‘defeatist’ for assuming that we can’t get a better deal and that he must ram through a bad deal. Stewart retrenched. He said his ‘realism’ is not ‘defeatism’. He said twice that May’s WA is more than 500 pages of a carefully worked good deal for Britain.

I kept expecting someone to point out that Stewart should be campaigning to keep Theresa May if her Withdrawal Agreement is that good. What’s the point of having Stewart as leader if he’s Theresa May II? Again, no competitor was so base as to point this out. The whole evening was rife with missed opportunities, self-censorship, and promises to work with each other, in case one of them won.

Stewart returned the hope that one of them would be leader, which is to say (with a knowing smile) that he hoped Johnson would not be leader.

Conservatism

The candidates had little to say about conservatism. As pointed out on TCW, they have avoided calling themselves conservatives; and when forced to talk about conservatism, they specify it for Left-wing appeal. 

Hunt made the strangest reference to conservatism: he said the party needs to get votes from people who haven’t voted Conservative before – ‘women’! It was a terrible turn of phrase, but if that’s what he really meant, then he forgets that in the 1980s most women voted Conservative.

Stewart was again the fakest conservative. Like Theresa May, Anna Soubry, and other fake conservatives, he invents a Right-wing conservative party that can’t be elected, then insists that he would capture the ‘centre’. He said he was proud that members of the public had approached him to claim they would vote for him even though they voted Labour or Liberal Democrat. He earned more applause. Yep, he’s Channel 4’s least-worst option.

Outside Brexit

When asked directly what should be the priority after Brexit, Raab focused on education. He made good points on expanding apprenticeships over degrees, but again his delivery did not carry his points home. Education is Gove’s strong legacy, and almost everybody indicated as much. With that set up, Gove also focused on education, but sounded less specified, albeit more confident, than Raab.

Hunt focused on growing the economy and social care, although by admitting the latter he also needed to admit that social care is ‘unfinished business’ (as he put it) for the longest serving Secretary for Health and Social Services. What business did he finish during his six years in that job? He didn’t specify any achievements, apart from answering a question about mental health by claiming that mental health was important to him.

Stewart had prepared a list of three priorities. He got as far as education before he was interrupted to focus on one priority, so he went to social care, although not before slipping in that his second item would have been the mythical Northern powerhouse. Again, his prepared statement betrayed scripting but a lack of research. He justified the urgency of reforming education by claiming that it must take in robotics and artificial intelligence – a cliché that has been running around since the 1970s. What about correcting for cultural Marxist agendas? What about falling standards across the board?

Gove was picked up for not mentioning climate change, Javid was picked up for not mentioning knife crime, but this was unfair, given than The Guru had forced Stewart to reduce to one priority, and they said so.

The candidates had 30 seconds each at the end to give a closing statement. Hunt, Javid, and Raab were so vapid and interchangeable they aren’t worth recording. Gove finished strongly, listing his many cabinet positions and his record on Brexit. Stewart claimed ‘honesty and trust’ – but he also claimed that he was the bookies’ second favourite, another dishonest claim that he’s in a two-horse race with Boris (his previous efforts have already been discredited on TCW).

It was an evening for confirming the worst about these candidates rather than the best. Hopefully Boris will shake things up tomorrow.

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Bruce Newsome is a lecturer in international relations at the University of California Berkeley and an expert on global security risks, international conflict and counterterrorism.