Boris stays at home as Tory lead­er­ship hope­fuls clash

●Empty podium is left for fron­trun­ner John­son in the first tele­vised de­bate

The Scotsman - - FRONT PAGE - By GINA DAVID­SON Deputy Po­lit­i­cal Edi­tor

The ele­phant may not have been in the room, but he was still tak­ing up space.

The empty podium be­tween Do­minic Raab and Sa­jid Javid sig­nalled ei­ther the com­plete ar­ro­gance of the Tory lead­er­ship fron­trun­ner or a deep-seated fear in Boris John­son that he may have been ex­pected to ac­tu­ally an­swer di­rect ques­tions.

Cer­tainly it al­lowed his com­peti­tors to taunt him in his ab­sence; what were his prime min­is­te­rial qual­i­ties if he could not bring him­self to face five of his par­lia­men­tary col­leagues?

But with Mr John­son ab­sent from the Chan­nel 4 de­bate last night, it left the five free to tear strips off each other over Brexit and the po­ten­tial sus­pen­sion of Par­lia­ment to push Brexit through by Hal­loween – with out­sider Rory Ste­wart the ac­cepted “win­ner” of the even­ing.

Mr Raab felt the full force of the sharpest clashes af­ter he re­fused to rule out pro­rogu­ing Par­lia­ment, in­sist­ing it should re­main an op­tion.

He said: “I don’t think it is likely but it is not il­le­gal. The mo­ment that we tele­graph to the EU we are not will­ing to walk away at the end of Oc­to­ber, we take away our best shot of a deal.”

Mr Ste­wart, the In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment Sec­re­tary, said shut­ting down Par­lia­ment was “un­demo­cratic” and “deeply dis­turb­ing” and would not work.

“Par­lia­ment is not a build­ing,” he said. Par­lia­ment is our demo­cratic rep­re­sen­ta­tives and they will meet re­gard­less of what the Prime Min­is­ter wants,” he said to ap­plause from the stu­dio au­di­ence.

For­eign Sec­re­tary Jeremy Hunt said it was the “wrong thing to do” while Mr Javid, the Home Sec­re­tary, added: “You don’t de­liver democ­racy by trash­ing democ­racy. We are not se­lect­ing a dic­ta­tor.”

Mr Raab warned that Par­lia­ment

could not stop a de­ter­mined Prime Min­is­ter, say­ing: “It is near im­pos­si­ble to stop a gov­ern­ment that is se­ri­ous”, be­fore En­vi­ron­ment Sec­re­tary Michael Gove – who ear­lier said he was the man Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn most feared – de­clared he would be the de­fender of democ­racy. “You can­not take Bri­tain out of the EU against the will of Par­lia­ment,” he said.

In the first tele­vised de­bate of the cam­paign, the five can­di­dates tak­ing part all agreed the next Prime Min­is­ter had to take Bri­tain out of the EU. Four said they would be pre­pared to do so with­out a deal but Mr Ste­wart said that it was not a cred­i­ble threat be­cause the EU was aware of the dam­age it would do the UK.

“We are not go­ing to get a dif­fer­ent deal from Europe,” he said. “A no-deal Brexit is a com­plete non­sense. It is go­ing to deeply dam­age our econ­omy.”

Mr Javid said it was a “com­plete non­sense” to take away the threat of no deal although he ac­knowl­edged not enough had been done to pre­pare for it. “The num­ber one mis­take was not plan­ning for no deal. I have never walked into a room with­out the abil­ity to walk away with­out sign­ing.”

Mr Hunt said the next Prime Min­is­ter had to be pre­pared to sit down and ne­go­ti­ate with Brus­sels to get a bet­ter deal than that ne­go­ti­ated by Theresa May. “It is fun­da­men­tally pes­simistic to say we can­not do that,” he said.

Mr Gove said he had the ex­pe­ri­ence to rene­go­ti­ate the con­tro­ver­sial North­ern Ire­land back­stop which proved the key stum­bling block to get­ting Mrs May’s deal through Par­lia­ment. “I would en­sure we have a full stop to the back­stop,” he said.

But Mr Raab, who quit as Brexit sec­re­tary over Mrs May’s agree­ment, said that as a com­mit­ted Brex­i­teer he could be re­lied on to de­liver Brexit. “I be­lieve I am the can­di­date most trusted to get us out of the EU by the end of Oc­to­ber.”

The Q&a-style Tory lead­er­ship de­bate, with an au­di­ence of “float­ing vot­ers”, started with a ques­tion from the au­di­ence about how the party could beat Mr Cor­byn and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage in an elec­tion, but also took in ques­tions about drugs, men­tal health and why Mr Javid had not been in­vited to the re­cent state din­ner with US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Asked how the new leader would “re­unite” the coun­try, Mr Javid touched on the third an­niver­sary of the mur­der of Labour MP Jo Cox, say­ing: “One of the things that she said so of­ten was that we have got so much more in com­mon as a coun­try.”

Can­di­dates were also asked about their great­est weakness. Mr Gove said “im­pa­tience” be­fore host Kr­ish­nan Gurumurthy asked if it was hypocrisy, men­tion­ing his re­cent ad­mis­sion to us­ing co­caine. “I made a mis­take,” he said. “I learnt from my mis­take.”

Mr Raab said he was rest­less, while Mr Ste­wart ad­mit­ted hav­ing “a lot of weak­nesses”, in­clud­ing be­ing prone to chang­ing his mind. Mr Javid ad­mit­ted he was “very stub­born” and added: “If you want to be Prime Min­is­ter you need to be ready to lis­ten.”

Mr Hunt joked that “oc­ca­sion­ally” get­ting his wife’s na­tion­al­ity wrong was a weakness but also drew on the ju­nior doc­tor scan­dal when he was health sec­re­tary, adding he could “be bet­ter at com­mu­ni­cat­ing what you want to do”.

The book­ies’ odds af­ter the de­bate still had Mr John­son ahead, with Mr Hunt and Mr Ste­wart tied in se­cond.

No­body was en­ti­tled to de­mand the pres­ence of Boris John­son at last night’s tele­vised de­bate be­tween con­tenders to be­come the next leader of the Con­ser­va­tive Party and – by ex­ten­sion – Prime Min­is­ter but we are all en­ti­tled to draw our own con­clu­sions from his ab­sence.

The spin, yes­ter­day, from sup­port­ers of Mr John­son – the clear favourite among the 160,000 Tory mem­bers who will se­lect the next in­cum­bent of 10 Down­ing Street – was that the de­bate shown on Chan­nel 4 was a waste of time. That Mr John­son is on record as hav­ing, in the past, been fully sup­port­ive of such events seemed not to mat­ter.

Those who have fol­lowed the ca­reer of the for­mer Mayor of Lon­don will find this in­con­sis­tency en­tirely un­sur­pris­ing. Mr John­son is, it seems, a man who will say what­ever he be­lieves is nec­es­sary to ad­vance his own in­ter­ests but re­fuses ever to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for his words.

Mr John­son’s re­fusal to par­tic­i­pate in the tele­vised de­bate was en­tirely in keep­ing with the cynical strat­egy of his cam­paign team which has, as far as pos­si­ble, kept him away from the spot­light be­cause he can­not be trusted to open his mouth with­out caus­ing of­fence.

The re­main­ing con­tenders – Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Sa­jid Javid, Do­minic Raab, and Rory Ste­wart – hardly rep­re­sented the face of a di­verse United King­dom but there was cer­tainly a di­ver­sity of opin­ion on how the chal­lenges fac­ing the UK might be ap­proached.

The Scots­man be­lieves that Mr Raab’s re­fusal to rule out the op­tion of pro­rogu­ing par­lia­ment in or­der to force through a ver­sion of Brexit that has been re­jected by a ma­jor­ity of MPS should rule him out of the run­ning. This would be a deeply un­demo­cratic act that would set a ter­ri­fy­ing prece­dent.

Mr Gove, Mr Javid, and Mr Hunt sought to per­suade view­ers that they could, some­how, rene­go­ti­ate

the with­drawal agree­ment struck by Theresa May and her EU coun­ter­parts. This may ap­peal to those who like their pol­i­tics with a dollop of machismo on top but it com­pletely ig­nores the fact that the EU has made it abun­dantly clear no al­ter­na­tive agree­ment is avail­able.

Mr Ste­wart stood out among the can­di­dates – as he has done through­out the early stages of this cam­paign – for his in­sis­tence on tak­ing into ac­count re­al­ity when dis­cussing Brexit. His po­si­tion – that no-deal must be ruled out and that ne­go­ti­a­tions with the EU can­not be re­run – is cred­i­ble.

How­ever, de­spite Mr Ste­wart’s recog­ni­tion of these facts, it is not clear how he would make good on his prom­ise to de­liver Brexit, on the terms avail­able, where Theresa May failed. His sug­ges­tion of a Ci­ti­zens’ Assem­bly has the whiff of a gim­mick about it. If a di­vided par­lia­ment can­not agree a way for­ward, we are not at all sure how a di­vided group of mem­bers of the pub­lic will do so.

None of the can­di­dates – in­clud­ing the reclu­sive Mr John­son – is will­ing to coun­te­nance the idea of a se­cond ref­er­en­dum. This, we be­lieve, is a mis­take. A change of lead­er­ship in gov­ern­ment will not, in it­self, end the Brexit stand-off.

None­the­less, The Scots­man hopes that Tory MPS and – ul­ti­mately – party mem­bers will se­lect as our next Prime Min­is­ter a man who re­jects cheap pop­ulism and con­sid­ers bravado an inad­e­quate re­place­ment for thought­ful con­sid­er­a­tion.

Last night, five of those who wish to lead the United King­dom through these times of great divi­sion and un­cer­tainty set out their cases. Though the fi­nal de­ci­sion rests with Con­ser­va­tive Party mem­bers, they al­lowed the rest of us a chance to bet­ter as­sess their fit­ness for the role.

By his re­fusal, yet again, to put him­self for­ward for scru­tiny, Boris John­son per­formed the same ser­vice.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.