10 July 2019

ITV’s debate was a close contest – that Johnson edged on points

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The factional divide in the Conservative Party used to be between the wets and the drys. These days, it seems it is between the optimists and the pessimists. This was reflected in Salford last night, during the ITV debate between Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson.

Perhaps the key exchange came when Jeremy Hunt told Johnson that “Being Prime Minister is about telling people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear. And the difference between you and me, is that you are peddling optimism…”

Johnson responded: “I think this country needs a bit of optimism, frankly…We’ve had a bellyful of defeatism.” In his closing pitch, Johnson doubled down: “There is only one way to get this country off the hamster wheel of doom and that is to deliver Brexit on October 31st…and believe in Britain.”

Hunt’s tone was different: “We can get through this. But we can’t get through this on a wing and a prayer…We can’t pretend this will be a walk in the park.” While Hunt said there was no chance of the EU signing up for an Article 24 free trade deal, Johnson responded: “Only a defeatist would take that line…”

It wasn’t just about Brexit. Johnson promised “full fibre broadband for all”, the sort of modern equivalent of “a chicken in every pot”. He promised to make the case for a “dynamic market economy”. He defended tax cuts, arguing “the way to get more growth out of the economy is judicious tax cuts to stimulate enterprise”. A “can-do spirit” was promised. It might seem obvious that optimism will be more popular. “Let sunshine win the day” was one of David Cameron’s early slogans as Tory leader. It does not always follow that sunshine wins through. Some equate pessimism with realism. Good news does not usually lead the bulletins, or make the front page.

This website has valiantly tried to point to the dramatic progress being made in the world – not least how free enterprise is rapidly reducing poverty. Yet in defiance of evidence, many insist the world is getting worse. Conservatives – conscious of human fallibility, suspicious of utopian ambitions, and with reverence for the past – tend to have a higher dose of pessimism than others. Yet at this stage in our island story the demand for optimism is strong. The nattering nabobs of negativism have left us stuck. If Johnson enters Downing Street his work on Shakespeare will be postponed, but more than any other politician, Johnson is sensitive to the maxim: “There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”

When Theresa May became Prime Minister the mood was that after all the excitement it was time for a period of calm. It didn’t matter if she was a bit dull – though making Philip Hammond the Chancellor of the Exchequer did make for an unduly dreary combination. Three years on the mood has changed. Johnson’s denouncement of the failures of “managerialism” rings true. Hunt would have done better by being a competing optimist in the debate last night. Even then it would have been tricky – as he stayed in the Cabinet, distancing himself too much from May is hard. Also, as Hunt voted Remain, for him to claim too much confidence about Brexit would have been harder. But Hunt could and should have tried to shake that off and have an upbeat tone – after all, he has come up with plenty of positive and bold policies, such as cutting Corporation Tax.

Both the leadership contenders performed strongly last night. Hunt had a greater willingness to engage in the dangerous tactic of answering questions, but being the underdog meant it made sense to take risks. This allowed him to put his opponent on the spot, saying “Boris, I’ve answered the question. What is your answer?” As Johnson is more likely to actually be the Prime Minister, he found it prudent to leave himself a bit of wriggle room – for instance, over whether or not to sack the British Ambassador to the United States, or proceed with HS2, or the third runway at Heathrow. The dodging was less awkward than it might have been due to Johnson’s confidence and good humour.

Therefore, I would declare Johnson the winner on points.

Perhaps the real winner last night was the show’s presenter, Julie Etchingham. She was polite but firm: “Gentlemen, it will not help if you speak over one another…Mr Johnson then Mr Hunt…” At times like an upmarket landlady: “Gentlemen, please. Stop, time. Thank you, thank you. Enough, finish.” She was fair. She pressed both of them.

Others have been openly biased against Johnson but she seemed to me impartial and professional – for instance, Hunt was pressed on when, if ever, he would guarantee that we would leave the EU. She did not bring in her own agenda of “gotcha” questions using some quote from five years ago wrenched out of context. Instead, she served viewers by seeking enlightenment on what the contenders proposed on the major issues we face.

This rekindled the case for TV debates after the mess of them made earlier in the campaign. Emily Maitlis on the BBC and Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News each presided over a shambles. But the greatest final challenge for the two competing to become our next PM is still to come: Andrew Neil interviews both of them on the BBC this Friday.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.