It was like that video of Johnson playing soccer and rugby-tackling an opponent. Andrew Neil and Johnson were playing under different rules; Neil didn’t manage to stop the next prime minister, but he did slow him down and Johnson came out of it looking a little more ridiculous than before.
Neil is a great interviewer and caught Johnson out twice. The first was a transcript for the ages, as Johnson corrected Neil on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Neil: “You talk about Article 5b in Gatt 24 – ”
Johnson: “Paragraph 5b. Article 24. Get the detail right. Get the detail right, Andrew. It’s Article 24, paragraph 5b.”
Neil: “And how would you handle paragraph 5c?”
Johnson: “I would confide entirely in paragraph 5b, because that is – ”
Neil: “How would you get round what’s in 5c?”
Johnson: “I would confide entirely in paragraph 5b which is enough for our purposes.”
Neil: “Do you know what’s in 5c?”
Paragraph 5c says that the interim agreement Johnson expects to make with the EU to avoid tariffs after a no-deal Brexit would have to include a plan for the eventual free-trade deal he wants. There is no way this could be agreed by the end of October.
Point one to Neil.
Johnson’s second defeat was on the tax cut for the rich, which was the first non-Brexit policy of his leadership campaign. Johnson has tried to reverse the policy, not by dropping it, but by promising, in addition, a cut in national insurance contributions for the poor. So Neil asked: “Who comes first?”
Johnson, after a moment’s bluster, replied: “The poorest come first; the poorest come first.” Those are words that will be thrown back at him – and his chancellor – again and again, just as Theresa May’s “burning injustices” were quoted at her. It is where Conservative rhetoric is always driven, by electoral necessity, but it is not always the direction in which the hearts of Conservative ministers beat.
Neil deserves credit for setting a benchmark below which Johnson is likely to fall – if he survives as prime minister long enough to be tested.
However, Neil failed to pin him down on Brexit – apart from on paragraph 5c – and it is on Brexit that he is heading for the greatest fall of all.
Neil asked Johnson why he was confident parliament would allow a no-deal Brexit, and the future prime minister simply asserted that “my colleagues in parliament, all of us, will be able to work together to get something done, to get it across the line”.
But he wouldn’t rule out suspending parliament – “the old prorogue question”, Johnson called it, dismissively, as if it were a debating tactic rather than a fundamental matter of parliamentary democracy.
Unfortunately, Neil wasted too much time on the fiscal rules that would bind a Johnson government, including a pointless attempt to catch Johnson out, paragraph-5c-style, on what the current government’s second fiscal rule is.
Which left no time to press Johnson on how he would deal with legislation passed from the backbenches to prevent a no-deal Brexit, or on the possibility of re-enacting the English Civil War against parliament with him in the role of Charles I.
Before the Johnson-Neil clash, the cup final of political TV interviews, came Jeremy Hunt in what felt like a third-place playoff. The blazing ambition in his eyes had faded, and his aim was to survive with dignity. He succeeded, at the price of stretches of dullness.
His best line was that he was prepared to tell people hard truths. There is only so much truth that the Tory party will bear, however, so during this campaign he has emphasised his willingness to take the UK out of the EU if he has to. But Neil forced him to choose between reality or Brexit fantasy.
To his credit, Hunt chose to remain tethered to reality, and refused to guarantee that we would be out of the EU – not just by the end of October but by the end of the year. “I can’t control what parliament does and that’s why I’m being honest with people about the difficulties,” he said.
This means that, if Johnson fails in his Brexit mission, as he is likely to do in the 100 days between 24 July and 31 October, Hunt could emerge from the maelstrom with his credibility enhanced, and could become leader of the anti-no-deal Tories.
It is not impossible to imagine Johnson, heading towards a no-deal Brexit, brought down by a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, and Hunt being installed as a temporary prime minister with Labour and SNP support for the sole purpose of securing a Brexit extension.
It is not likely, I admit, but some unlikely things are bound to happen when Johnson becomes prime minister, and last night we gained a better idea of what the constitutional chaos that lies ahead might be like.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies