There’s a scent in the air around the Tory leadership contest. It is the whiff of desperation. The aroma of provincial ballrooms when the lights go up at midnight; or of the last few seconds before a firing on The Apprentice when a contestant butts in with ‘Can I just say...’ and Lord Sugar snaps: ‘I’ve heard enough from you.’
First to set the tone was Rishi Sunak, coached not to blink or move his eyes, which some PR adviser obviously still thinks makes a person look agreeable and approachable, and not like a double glazing salesman who must get this commission from a confused elderly lady or starve. He used this little film to assure us he is the man to stop telling us comforting fairytales, which is surprising for someone who loves chucking billions of pounds about like a tipsy auntie with a box of confetti.
Penny Mordaunt’s video was even worse, incorporating a statement of gossamer vapidity that informs us she is a pragmatist and an optimist, and what’s more – hold on, this is heady stuff – she has a vision. Forgive me, but isn’t that the bare minimum requirement? I suppose a contender could try: ‘I’m a panicky flake and we’re all doomed, doomed’? It would be distinctive but I wouldn’t advise it.
Mordaunt had earlier tried jumping the gun on her critics with a slippery Twitter thread that succeeded not in closing a can of worms but exploding it, with wormy fragments rebounding in her face. It can be summed up as: ‘I never said the thing I’ve been saying for years, and even if I did say it I didn’t really mean it, and I think you’ll find that it was actually me, Penny Mordaunt, who fought against the appalling behaviour of that bloody awful Penny Mordaunt’. It also incorporated the hilarious neologism ‘biological woman’ to mean ‘woman’, an adjective formerly reserved for laundry detergents.
Sweet Grant Shapps would like to teach the world to sing. He’s just a daydreamer, walking in the rain, chasing after rainbows that he never found again. He is there to appeal to the section of the electorate that thinks everyone should just put down that stick and play nicely, which may not work on Vladimir Putin. His astonishing turn on Sky News on Sunday, where he managed to frame the gender hot potato as ‘let people live their lives’, displayed an incredible lack of information, as if he’d only just heard about the thing. Perhaps he had.
His campaign video, mercifully short, climaxes with a pose in a big garden presumably intended to look dynamic and far-seeing, but which actually comes over as Grant pondering if he should waterproof the decking. If that was the best take, what the hell were the others like?
Jeremy Hunt picked Esther McVey as his deputy – another anxious wheeze. Posh and common, chalk and cheese, north and south, Dempsey and Makepeace. Like Keir Starmer, Hunt always looks like there’s something on his mind, but it is something agreeable, looking forward to a nice glass of wine maybe, while Starmer seems worried in a ‘I did lock the car, didn’t I?’ way. But I can’t see anyone thinking the answer to a bluff old Etonian is a bland old Carthusian. Flashman remains an enduring archetype, but ‘anyone for tennis?’ has long gone.
Day two of a long contest, and Suella Braverman whipped out ‘let’s leave the EHCR!’, and Nadhim Zahawi promised to publish his tax returns. Again, too keen, too soon. These people are meant to be conservative – why can’t they conserve some ammunition! By day 43, what the hell will this pair be suggesting to outdo each other? Invading France? A 24 hour access-all-areas live stream of No. 10 on ITV2?
It’s all so one-note sweaty and hungry. So far nothing compares in eccentricity to my all-time favourite leadership launch, Angela Eagle for Labour in 2016 – a pink Union Jack and a signature logo like a pair of Miss Selfridge jeans. But I have high hopes for Liz Truss on this score.
There’s something to be said for the ‘take me or leave me’ approach of Kemi Badenoch, who has the unshowy assurance of an intelligent person, even if the sudden enthusiasm for her in Tory media circles suggests that her supporter Michael Gove is frantically pulling strings. Tom Tugendhat has stayed almost gaffe-free for 72 hours, a new record, but then he always looks pretty desperate, as anybody who has followed his Twitter handle knows.
It was Ben Wallace who had the most beguiling characteristic in a leader. He didn’t want to do it, unlike the ‘Pick me!’ pygmies. Would he really rather be Nato secretary general, as some are saying? Or was he afraid of being exposed in some sordid scandal, as the newspapers heavily suggested?
What’s certain is that all the contenders need to calm down. At the moment it feels like we are making a selection at a canine rescue centre, all moist eyes pleading, tongues panting, angsty tails wagging. Somebody, please, give them all a biscuit and a belly rub.