The televised debates are a big risk for Boris Johnson

The televised Tory leadership debates are an opportunity for his rivals to change the shape of the contest.

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The counter-revolution will be televised: all the nominated candidates for the Conservative party leadership will debate one another on national television, the BBC has announced.

The debates have serious potential to shake up the contest, and are therefore a real risk for the current frontrunner, Boris Johnson. It’s easy to forget but most party members aren’t intensely political – they are significantly less well-informed than the average reader of a political magazine, say.

It was Jeremy Corbyn’s first appearance in the BBC hustings than brought him to the attention of many Labour members, vaulting him into first place in private YouGov polls conducted for a rival campaign. It was David Cameron’s “no-notes” speech to Conservative party conference in 2005, and the resulting media coverage, which similarly transformed his standing to defeat David Davis, then the frontrunner.

So there is an opportunity for a candidate from the middle of the pack to shake it up with a strong debate performance and to transform the race, as Cameron and Corbyn both did. As strange as it may seem, most Conservative party members will have only a vague awareness of who the lesser-known candidates such as Matt Hancock and James Cleverly even are, and they could change the whole contest by introducing themselves to the country and the membership in a way that alters the narrative around the campaign.

That word narrative is important, too: ultimately, the government has no majority and no agenda, so the only story in Westminster is, as it stands “frontrunner Boris Johnson trundles to victory”. The appetite for a genuine race is also a benefit to any candidate who can pull off something that even looks halfway to a surprise in the debates as it is, well, a fresh slant on a stale story.

But there are considerable barriers between any of the candidates and emulating Cameron or Corbyn. The first, of course, is that there are so many candidates, which may make it hard for any individual candidate to stand out. The second is that the incentive will be to go after Johnson directly, in the hope that tearing the frontrunner down will benefit them. It won’t, because the story out of the debates will be still be Johnson.

What they instead need to do is set themselves up as the only candidate who can secure Brexit and win a general election – a much more difficult task given that there will be at least nine others doing the same thing.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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