Last night Channel 4 held a 90-minute live event starring Rishi, Liz, Tom, Penny and Kemi. Not a manufactured pop-band but the candidates for the Tory leadership. The first question was easy-peasy.
‘Is Boris Johnson honest?’
‘No,’ the obvious answer, was beyond them. They ducked and weaved and dodged and fudged. Except for Tom Tugendhat. ‘Honest?’ He bowed his head and shook it gravely. Massive applause.
Major Tom is known as a bit of a heartthrob among ladies of a certain age (over 90) and his manner is to bark out terse and meaningless soundbites, parade-ground style. ‘Clean break!... Ready to lead!… Government only works when it works for you!… Fresh start!... Ready to serve!’ At one point he yelped that he has a ‘clean face!’ Great. He knows where the soap dish is. His abiding theme is self-sacrifice. He ‘served’ in the army, he boasted, and he ‘served’ in parliament too. OK, but so did Robert Maxwell. What the Major lacks is a vision, a manifesto, a sense of humour or an intelligent answer to Britain’s problems. Does he have a personality? It must be a military secret.
A female doctor in the audience asked about the NHS, and the candidates instantly turned on the taps and let the oily tributes flow. Rishi Sunak led the way. Britain, he schmoozed, owed her ‘an enormous debt of gratitude’ for her ‘heroic’ actions. Major Tom jumped in and recalled the Afghan battlefield where his comrades lay wounded and dying. The RAF flew them home, he told us, but the NHS wrapped them in bandages and healed their injuries. ‘Thank you,’ he gushed. ‘You brought many of my friends back to life’ – as if she had individually saved an entire infantry platoon.
‘And you’ve also given me two children,’ he went on, weirdly. Was he admitting to an affair on live TV? He corrected himself. ‘Not you personally, of course.’ Highly embarrassing. Do we really need this gaffe-prone groveller in No. 10?
Liz Truss is a promising contender but she has a sibilance, almost a lisp, that makes her words sound girlish. And she looks permanently worried like the understudy shoved on stage at the last minute. Even when she talks about crushing Putin, she has an air of nervousness and contrition. And her voice lacks power. She could be a travel rep telling a bus-load of pensioners that their coach to Weymouth has broken down. Her costume was well judged – if a bit obvious. Dark blue jacket and a cream sash knotted into a huge bow, just like Mrs Thatcher. Perhaps it was a coincidence.
Penny Mordaunt seemed solid but colourless. Her stare is fixed and her icing-sugar face lacks mobility or expression. She could be a mental health nurse who keeps nipping to the medicine cabinet for personal reasons.
Kemi Badenoch, the nice geography teacher, told us she migrated to Britain from Nigeria at the age of 16. Why? She couldn’t bear the rolling power-cuts. And she won’t let that happen to us. Thanks, Miss. She seemed hesitant and low-key. Many were hoping for a more inspiring performance from the newcomer. Asked about the NHS backlog she said she found it, ‘terrifying… I chipped my tooth recently and I haven’t been able to get a dental appointment.’ Not a great outing for her.
Rishi paraded his NHS credentials as if he’d been personally coached by Sir Keir Starmer. ‘I grew up in the NHS. My mum was a chemist and my dad was GP.’
He’s good and he knows it. Easily the cleverest and smoothest among this B-list crew of lightweights. A smart alec grin stole across his lips whenever his rivals discussed the economy. He couldn’t wait to knock them flat with his crafted soundbites and killer statistics. Liz Truss promised to scrap green levies on energy bills and to abolish the National Insurance hike. Rishi pounced:
‘Borrowing your way out of inflation isn’t a plan it’s a fairy-tale’. Truss stuck to her guns. ‘You can’t tax your way to growth,’ she told him in her baby-girl voice. She’ll fund her tax cuts by repaying the Covid debt over a longer period.
Another wolfhound smirk from Rishi. ‘There’s no such thing as Covid debt. Debt is debt,’ he said. ‘The number one challenge is inflation’.
Rishi’s gravest problem is his record. Fined by the cops while in office. ‘Replacing a law-breaker with a law-breaker’ is a charge that could haunt the Tories for decades.
The big winner from last night’s debate was the opposition. None of the candidates said a single word that couldn’t have come from Labour’s front bench. Wise Conservative donors will start reaching out to Sir Keir immediately. The tide is turning. It’s turning away from the Tories.