Hunt won the TV battle but the war was already lost – Boris Johnson will now be our bored Brexit PM

Johnson kept harping on about what he did as Mayor of London, but that was in the days when he was a socially progressive, pro-European sort of Tory

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 10 July 2019 00:33 BST
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt clash during televised debate: 'You haven’t answered any of my questions', says Hunt

Well, Jeremy Hunt won, but of course it didn’t really matter that much. Johnson looked a bit weary and bored, and had his hands in his pockets like some scruffy naughty schoolboy. He didn’t cut a dashing or elegant figure compared to the sleek, groomed Hunt. As usual, he looked like a human laundry basket. The hair has gone ruffled again.

But Johnson could have turned up in that Donald Duck outfit that Sir Elton John used to entertain his audiences with at his concerts, and it would have made no odds.

As it was, Boris just quacked his way through the arguments, and it might as well have been the Disney duck himself at the podium for all the sense he made.

It was quite an ill-tempered affair. Johnson seemed to be playing the rather rough-and-tumble Eton Wall game rather than practising the gentler skill of soccer, say. Where Hunt consistently scored and made Johnson look shiftier and more evasive than he does normally (which is saying something) was when he was precise. He laboriously tried to pin Johnson down to specifics – to simply answer a question or two. It worked. It made Johnson look second rate.

Johnson would do anything to avoid answering. He’d throw back the same question at Hunt. Throw a different question at Hunt. Talk over Hunt. Talk over the presenter/referee Julie Etchingham. Interrupt Hunt. Heckle hunt. Lob a big word – “eviscerate” – at Hunt. Patronised Hunt – “that’s the spirit, Jeremy”. All the usual Oxford Union stuff. But it was all technique, and pretty heavy technique at that.

And so Johnson refused to say whether he would keep the UK’s beleaguered ambassador Sir Kim Darroch in his post because “I would not be so presumptuous”. Such chutzpah! Johnson avoided saying he would back HS2. Or Heathrow expansion. Or back LGBT+ rights in Northern Ireland. He gave the usual non-answer about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Hunt was much the straighter player. Apart from dodging a question about whether he would in fact want – ever – to cut taxes for what Johnson termed “pressed middle” earners (in reality the top slice of income tax payers on double average earnings or more), Hunt played it fairly honestly, and preferred to give yes/no answers.

Johnson stuck to his ambition to help the better off – police inspectors or senior nurses as he saw it – which will go down well with the real target audience, mostly far away from the ITV studio in Salford and down in the prosperous southeast of England, the very people gagging for a big tax cut on their investment income.

Hunt stuck to his line that corporation tax cuts would be more useful in boosting growth. Boring.

On policy, there wasn’t much that was new or to distinguish them on Brexit. Yet again they put their hands up – literally – to leave on 31 October, if needs be.

They both agreed that clever technology could be used to get round the Irish border; neither had an answer to Etchingham’s direct challenge that the EU had dismissed such ideas. Johnson had the edge in terms of being tougher on the EU – threatening not to pay that £39bn “divorce bill” but Hunt failed to question the legality of that. (Philip Hammond, the chancellor, maintains that the bulk of the money – stretching to payments due across future decades – is due whichever way we leave the EU).

Johnson, again, refused to rule out proroguing parliament, but the more fascistic of the Tory grassroots will love that.

Hunt claimed, plausibly, to be the calmer negotiator, the more practised in the art, the realist.

But, as Johnson pointed out this “managerial” approach hadn’t worked in the way the Conservatives – i.e. Theresa May – would have wanted it to, and perhaps the time has arrived for a different approach: the “believe in Britain” optimism Johnson exalts at every opportunity. Hunt had a clever line that he had actually delivered £350m a week for the NHS while Johnson had only ever promised to do it on the side of a bus.

Luckily for him, Johnson wasn’t asked anything about his private life, though he would have clammed up on in any case. I don’t know why nobody asked where Carrie was.

So, on balance, Hunt just edged it in terms of technique and on the scoreboard. For the public, he was the winner, and the better match for No 10. But, as Hunt shrewdly said, Johnson spent his entire time telling his target audience – rich old Tories – what they wanted to hear, rather than the truth.

The polls say that the Tory members actively favour hard, no-deal Brexit by a margin of about two to one – and that would seem to be the margin that Johnson will triumph by in the ballot. Johnson was wise to avoid many of these sorts of encounters earlier on in the campaign. But the postal ballots went out a few days ago, and very many will already have been returned. The ones still sitting on kitchen tables and sideboards ready to get to HQ by the final deadline of Sunday 21 July might shift a bit to Hunt after today.

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A few minds will have been changed by this testing debate, but not enough to change the result.

The unfortunate reality is that Johnson, looking alternately embarrassed and amused at his own cheek, didn’t look or sound terribly prime ministerial. He kept harping on about what he did as Mayor of London, but that was in the days when he was a socially progressive, pro-European sort of Tory, and when his powers of persuasion were far more important than his scant executive duties.

No 10 will be very different. He’s one of those politicians who loves the chase, the pursuit of power far more than the actual capture and exercise of it, which frankly bores him. He won’t enjoy himself much when he gets through the big black door. Only Boris could be bored by the premiership in the age of Brexit.

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