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Tory leadership hustings: Boris Johnson was as lukewarm as a Rotary Club after-dinner speaker

The hustings were to choose a new party leader and prime minister – but the Conservative members weren’t really given any suitable candidates

Sean O'Grady
Sunday 23 June 2019 16:26 BST
Conservative leadership hustings: Boris Johnson on police coming to his house following domestic row

So a couple of TV firsts there then. The controversial drama critic Kenneth Tynan may have been the first person to utter the F-word on British television back in 1965, but it was left to a Conservative Party activist from the West Midlands to drop an F-bomb on a Saturday afternoon on rolling news, as an official Tory party event was streamed live to the Great British public. The guy with the bleep machine must have been off duty, understandably.

BBC news presenter Lukwesa Burak apologised for the use of the “direct quotation”. The foul word was originally used, of course, about business interests by Boris Johnson who dismissed it as a “stray remark to the Belgian ambassador”. So that’s all right then.

Boris’s domestic affairs also gave rise to a second first – a candidate for PM being asked live on air why the police had been called to his flat at half-past midnight.

As on every other of the very numerous occasions since about 2007 when his life of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll has been brought up by an interviewer, he batted it away by saying people weren’t interested in that sort of thing and they’re dying instead to hear about his proposals on HS2 and how to make Article 24 of the general agreement on tariffs and trade really work for global Britain. Course they are, Boris.

The hustings, as they were gravely introduced by Iain Dale, were to choose a new party leader and prime minister. The thousand or so grassroots Tories “from Stourbridge to Solihull and from Warwick to Wolverhampton” didn’t really have very suitable candidates though.

The first bloke who turned up, Boris, had clearly been sent by a theatrical agency in the sincere belief it was an audition for a lucrative series of engagements for an after-dinner speaker. The jokes were as well worn as anything you’d hear at the Brierley Hill and Kings Norton Rotary Club.

We’ve heard them all before during the one TV debate Boris did and at his launch event. The four nations of the UK are the “awesome foursome”. Groan.

“Britain is a soaring eagle.” What?

The Tories are being parasitised by “the puff balls of the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party” feeding on their decaying corpse. Er, I suppose so. But “the darkest hour is before the dawn”. Course it is, Boris.

They loved him as they always do. Whatever he’s like in the bedroom, Boris is accomplished at helping even the most jaded Tory audience achieve a shuddering multiple orgasm. He did it again. He really is the British Trump – his base don’t give a damn what he gets up to in his free time.

A tough act to follow, then, but Jeremy Hunt did his best. He strolled out jacketless and with his sleeves rolled up like in those photo ops he used to do on hospital wards. He would be the first PM to have run the NHS, he was keen to remind us, though, you might add, not the first PM to mess it up. Anyway his jokes about “Hunty McHuntface” were execrable, the most unfunny thing since Little and Large had their own TV series.

He was like the handsome, slightly gawky, well spoken, nervous junior registrar Dirk Bogarde played in the Doctor in the House movies during the 1950s. (Bogarde was a kind of prototype Hugh Grant.)

Hunt wanted to prove his bedside manner to a party that had recently been told it had a terminal illness (Brexicosis, to quote an old Boris gag), and it’s fair to say he mostly succeeded. Boris quoted Latin and referred to the Napoleonic Continental System as if he was back at the Eton College Debating Society; he took their minds off the crisis with some japery. Yet “our Jeremy” was keener on carefully setting out the treatment plan.

Hunt was also, unlike the Wodehousian Johnson, modernity itself: self-made entrepreneur, gay friends, a fresh face. Basically he sounded straighter and more sincere than Boris Johnson, which is actually a lot harder than it sounds. Hunt had an apparently mad idea to bring Arlene Foster and Jacob Rees-Mogg along to Brussels for the Brexit talks – but maybe it might just work? So bad it’s a good idea? He did sound the more skilled, patient negotiator.

What a pity they can’t do a job share. Boris can do the gags, Jeremy can be the straight man. They’d still fail, though, to deliver an undeliverable Brexit.

Michael Gove doesn’t know how lucky he is.

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