Boris Johnson’s warning that the televised Tory leadership hustings would be a ‘cacophony’ was proved correct this evening when the five candidates spent an hour talking over one another. Any private fears the former Foreign Secretary may have had about his own performance were largely unjustified, though, as he stayed reasonable and quiet throughout the debate.
His worst performance came when he answered a question on Islamophobia. Johnson appeared not to have prepared an answer for this, even though his column on the burqa and his handling of the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe have come up repeatedly throughout this contest. He initially argued that others had lifted and exaggerated his words ‘as a journalist’, even though he wrote the offending column as a politician. Then he ended up rambling about how his great-grandfather, a Muslim, would have been proud of him. He also argued, staring right down the barrel of the camera, that his comments on Zaghari-Ratcliffe hadn’t made any difference to the case. Neither of these answers really explained why Johnson had done either of those things, or whether he’d learned from what most consider to be mistakes.
The other candidates were as interested in turning their fire on Rory Stewart as they were in attacking Johnson. Stewart, for his part, promised to attack Boris and he certainly did that. But his demeanour was more macho, to borrow his own criticism of his opponents from Sunday night, and it underlined Michael Gove’s warning that a Stewart vs Johnson final round will ‘polarise’ the Tory party. Many people watching, though, might have wished for some greater distinction between the candidates, given the overall impression from that debate was of a lot of men disagreeing without offering much clarity.