No candidate knows how they will get Brexit done
The first question was the most fundamental: how did the candidates intend to get their Brexit plans through a recalcitrant Parliament by 31 October?
All offered varying shades of commitment to leaving the EU – be it with or without a deal by the Article 50 deadline in the case of Johnson and Javid, or after a short extension in the case of Hunt and Gove.
But none, with the exception of Rory Stewart, actually answered the question of how they intended to win a parliamentary majority for their preferred outcome. As Michael Gove said, the international development secretary’s approach is essentially the same as Theresa May’s: asking parliament to approve the withdrawal agreement for a third time.
Sajid Javid mooted an alternative plan that, as far as the EU is concerned, is just as implausible: gutting the withdrawal agreement of the backstop. And asked by Stewart how they would overcome parliament’s opposition to a no-deal, the other four candidates could not answer.
Unicornism also abounded when the contenders were challenged on the Irish border: they variously suggested time-limiting the backstop, removing the backstop, paying Ireland to stop caring about the backstop, replacing it with technology. None is going to fly in Brussels or Dublin. 26 minutes of heat, but no light whatsoever.
Sajid Javid and Michael Gove want Dominic Raab’s votes…
The home secretary struck a more aggressive note on Brexit than he has at any point in the race thus far. He stressed the imperative of leaving by 31 October at almost any cost, and attacked Hunt and Gove for countenancing a short extension.
Gove too sought to burnish his Brexit bona fides. He made several pointed references to his leadership of the Leave campaign, and the fact that his commitment to it predated Johnson’s. There was less by way of concrete commitment to meeting the deadline, which reflects the more diverse complexion of Gove’s coalition of supporters.
Why the shift in emphasis? For both candidates, their route to second place – or in Javid’s case, survival – runs through the 30 predominantly pro-Brexit MPs who voted for Dominic Raab today.
…and Javid might win most of them
After a sluggish start, Javid landed the clearest blows of the evening. He made an articulate case for tax cuts, bounced the rest of the field into agreeing to an independent investigation into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and left Stewart floundering over his non-condemnation of Donald Trump.
As pitches for the less doctrinaire end of Raab’s backers go, it was strong. The only problem was that it took the best part of 40 minutes to get going, by which time it was clear that Johnson was not to be knocked off his perch.
Boris Johnson is less a submarine than a blimp
Much was made, not least by Rory Stewart, of the potential for the contradictions in the frontrunner’s position to be exposed this evening – or if not that, then the potential for Johnson to be rattled.
Neither scenario really materialised. That in part was a consequence of both the terrible format the BBC contrived to impose on the debate and the number of candidates on stage.
But the failure of any of the four contenders to land a blow on Johnson also had a lot to do with the posture he adopted. His supporters in parliament had urged his team to ensure that he retained his composure and did not rise to any bait offered up by his rivals – not that much was forthcoming.
He largely succeeded, mostly by not talking very much. In many of his answers he made sure to lavish praise on Javid and Hunt in particular. So far above the fray did he appear that the moments where he could not provide a coherent or convincing answer – on his tax policy, on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, on Heathrow expansion or on Islamophobia – will ultimately fail to hurt him.
Rory Stewart may well have hit his ceiling
The outsider’s entire candidacy was staked on reaching this stage and socking it to Johnson, something the format did not allow him to do.
Stewart was largely ignored by the former foreign secretary and Hunt, Gove and Javid aped the tactics he himself had adopted in the first debate: gadflyish heckling.
His explanation of why he had refused to straightforwardly condemn Donald Trump was too equivocal to make an impact and gave Javid, not renowned among colleagues for dynamic public speaking, an easy line of attack.
And as much as the holes he picked in the other candidates’ policy prescriptions raised valid questions – particularly on tax – they were much too nuanced to have the impact he had hoped for going into the debate.