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12 July 2019updated 09 Jun 2022 5:15pm

Who won from the latest Boris Johnson-Jeremy Hunt debate? Jeremy Corbyn, probably

By Stephen Bush

Barring a miracle, Boris Johnson will be Britain’s next Prime Minister. Every measure of Conservative opinion – YouGov’s so-far flawless polls of party members, ConservativeHome’s surveys of its readers, polls of the party’s councilors – points to a landslide win for the former Mayor of London.

All the evidence from previous elections, and the testimony of Conservative activists on the ground, indicates that most members have already voted, although there are various rumours in Westminster to the contrary. Tonight’s interviews with Andrew Neill, however, are probably more useful as a stress-test. What should the two campaign teams work on if they get to Downing Street? And what will Jeremy Corbyn, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey have made of that, watching it at home?

The answer as far as Corbyn, Davey and Swinson are concerned must surely be that they will get a great deal out of joy of whoever emerges from this process.

Jeremy Hunt did very well explaining away his many inconsistencies and his helter-skelter Brexit positioning but ultimately his performance here felt like watching a team come from four nil down to grab a point: it’s impressive, yes, but you have to ask yourself what he had done wrong to end up in that position in the first place.

As for Boris Johnson, he did very badly.  He had no grip of the detail, struggled to tackle any of the questions about the mistakes he had made or to defend any of his controversial positions.

Johnson does best when he is aggressive and funny, which worked very well in the debates against Hunt and was alright against Andrew Neill, but it is hard to see how that approach is going to work against Jeremy Corbyn, who is visibly significantly older than Johnson, and will play very badly on television if the Liberal Democrats pick Jo Swinson.

Hunt will do better in televised set pieces but Conservative members will quite rightly look at his many strategic mistakes and the political cul-de-sac he drove himself into, and think that while the TV appearances will be great, the rest of the time will be awful.

It is hard, bluntly, to construct a positive case for either of these candidates. On the one hand you have Boris Johnson, who has good political instincts but he is highly unpopular among half the electorate and has a rap sheet a mile long. On the other hand, you have Jeremy Hunt, whose political instincts are terrible, is incredibly dull but who comes into Downing Street as a clean skin.

What the Conservative Party really need is someone who combines the strengths of both candidates. But it is hard to see who they have available and of these two, Tory members are probably right to gamble that Johnson’s political instincts make up for his considerable vulnerabilities.

Hear from the UK’s leading politicians on the most pressing policy questions facing the UK at NS Politics Live, in London. Speakers include Sir Keir Starmer, Ben Wallace, Lisa Nandy, Sajid Javid, Professor Sarah Gilbert, Jeremy Hunt, Layla Moran and Andrew Marr. Find out more about the New Statesman’s flagship event on the 28 June here.

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