James Forsyth

The question for Stephen Crabb, can you go toe to toe with Vladimir Putin?

The question for Stephen Crabb, can you go toe to toe with Vladimir Putin?
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The Tory leadership hopefuls all appeared before a packed out 1922 hustings tonight. First up was Michael Gove. His pitch was that he had the conviction, the experience and the vision to lead the party and the country. He argued that the Tories’ aim should be to help those on £24,000 a year.

Surprisingly, Gove wasn’t asked any questions about what had happened between him and Boris Johnson last week. However, he was asked twice about his former adviser Dominic Cummings. Gove said that Cummings would have no formal role in his Number 10.

Gove was typically fluent, answering nine questions in the fifteen minutes allotted to him. He was listened to respectfully, which was by no means certain given the events of Thursday morning. Some of Gove’s backers believe that things might be beginning to move in their favour.

Next up was Liam Fox. Unlike Gove, he devoted most of his fifteen minutes to giving a speech. He emphasised his experience and his ability to take decisive decisions. He said that he would ring-fence the mental health budget and increase defence spending. He talked about the dangers of cyber-terrorism and won smiles when he warned the 2010 and 2015 intakes not to believe the job offers that candidates make to them.

The view of Tory MPs afterwards was that Fox was, most likely, auditioning to be Foreign Secretary rather than Prime Minister. Hence, the global focus of the speech.

Then came Theresa May, who entered to such a flurry of desk and window banging that the police outside the room became rather alarmed. May started off by addressing the issue of whether EU nationals should be allowed to stay in the UK post-Brexit. She said she wasn’t going to give any unilateral assurances because she wanted to guarantee the position of UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU.

In an interesting choice of words, May said ‘I will control free movement’. Some Tory MPs thought it was telling that she did not say that she would end free movement. In a sign of the strength of the Theresa operation, when Martin Vickers asked why she should be leader given she was a Remainer and her failure on immigration he was met by hisses.

Stephen Crabb was next up. He started by saying that now was not a time for steady as she goes, echoing Gove’s implicit attack on May from Friday. He took another pop at May on the EU nationals question, saying that ‘people are not bargaining chips’ and that it was not morally right to use their status as a negotiating tool.

Crabb was, I’m told, slightly nervous. But his performance was generally regarded as quite good. However when Nicola Blackwood asked him if he could go toe to toe with Vlaidmir Putin and come out on top, the doubts of many Tory MPs about his relative lack of experience were reinforced.

Last but not least was Andrea Leadsom, who has been boosted by a Conservative Home survey showing her just ahead of Theresa May in the race. She talked about the 3 Bs that she has concentrated on since becoming an MP—Brussels, banking and babies. However, when she started talking about the ‘frontal cortex’ of baby’s brains she lost quite a few MPs. Her case for a freight line from Dover to Edinburgh, an idea first proposed by the Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins, was also not universally popular. In a sign of what the line of attack on her will be, she was asked about her links with both Ukip and its controversial donor Arron Banks.

Afterwards, there was more briefing against Leadsom than any other candidate. This is, perhaps, a reflection of the fat she is coming up fast on the rails in this race—further boosted by Boris Johnson’s endorsement tonight. But there is also a sense among Tory MPs that if she makes the final two, she could win. That alarms some who worry about making someone who has only been a Minister of State, Prime Minister at this time. There is tellingly, a lot of chuntering about tactical voting in Tory circles this evening.