Who won the Tory debate? Rory Stewart asked the right questions and Boris Johnson didn’t answer

The frontrunner finally faced his rivals in a TV debate, but neither he nor they had convincing solutions to the problem of Brexit

John Rentoul
Wednesday 19 June 2019 08:18
Boris Johnson fails to answer question on 'letterbox' comments towards Muslims

“How are you going to deliver a no-deal Brexit against the will of parliament?” It is the only real question of the Conservative leadership election, and Rory Stewart asked it. Boris Johnson replied, although he turned to deliver his reply to Carmela, the questioner from Southampton, and said leaving the EU without a deal is “not what we want”.

In the chaos of a five-way slogan competition, in which various candidates tried to ask each other questions, all of them ignored the questions they were asked by each other, by the members of the public from around the country and especially by Emily Maitlis, the BBC presenter.

Of all the questions they didn’t answer, Stewart’s was the most important. Sajid Javid said the problem was that the UK hadn’t prepared “well enough” for a no-deal exit. Jeremy Hunt said: “We need to keep no-deal on the table.”

Michael Gove gave a version of what Stewart had mocked in Sunday’s Johnsonless debate as, “You’ve got to believe in the bin.” Believing you can fit too much rubbish into a bin isn’t going to make it possible. But Gove said, referring to his co-leadership of the Leave campaign, “Because I started this, I will finish it.”

Stewart tried to point out that no one had answered his question. He tried to ask Johnson a subsidiary question about whether he would impose tariffs on imports in the event of Britain leaving without a deal, but didn’t wait for Johnson to ignore it. “He’s not going to answer on tariffs; he’s going to change the subject.” Even Maitlis ignored him.

“Please answer the question,” Stewart said, as if to himself by now. “How?”

The only response he got was from Hunt, who asked a question in return: “Are you happy with no Brexit?” Hunt later, impatient with being lectured by Stewart on how they were all promising what they couldn’t deliver, pointed out that Stewart’s plan was to get Theresa May’s deal through parliament.

The great clash between Johnson and his fiercest critic failed to materialise, therefore, lost in a studio full of people talking to themselves.

Thus Johnson got through the hour unscathed. His handlers have been keeping him from big televised events for fear that he would throw away his commanding lead in this campaign with some ill-chosen words, but he threaded his way uneasily through it without too much difficulty.

The closest he came to a campaign-limiting calamity was when Abdullah the imam from Bristol asked the candidates if “words have consequences”. He was talking about Islamophobia, but Maitlis turned an abrupt corner and pressed Johnson on whether his misspoken words implying there was something in the trumped-up Iranian charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had the consequence of keeping her in jail longer. “It didn’t make any difference,” said Johnson, paying attention to the question for once.

There was one other question that tonight’s debate was supposed to answer, and that was who the other candidate might be – the one that isn’t Johnson – in the final two who are put to a ballot of the 160,000 party members. But the engagement was too scrappy and inconclusive to allow any of the candidates to stand out. Even Stewart, for once, seemed like just another politician trying and failing to be heard.

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