What we learned from tonight's Tory leadership debate

Boris Johnson gambled on avoiding tonight's Channel 4 debate and it paid off for now. 

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Dominic Raab's isolation shows why Boris Johnson's gamble paid off - for now

It was widely assumed that one of the reasons Boris Johnson, the clear frontrunner, did not show up to this evening's debate was his fear of being torn apart by Rory Stewart – who put in the sort of combative performance we have come to expect. 

But, as my colleague Stephen Bush predicted earlier this week, Dominic Raab posed an even greater threat. The former Brexit Secretary's turn this evening bore that argument out: he repeated at some length his threat to suspend parliament in order to force a no-deal Brexit through. 

The alacrity with which the other candidates subjected him to a sustained evisceration illustrates why Raab, the only candidate to outflank Johnson on no-deal, is unlikely to get much further in the parliamentary stage of this race. 

But the ferocity of the debate over prorogation underlines something altogether more significant. Johnson, whose fissiparous coalition of backers is just as divided as the Tory parliamentary party as a whole, would have been left badly exposed by his failure to keep pace with Raab. 

For Team Johnson, the potential cost of such an exchange would have been far greater than that of a few jibes about his absence, most notably Jeremy Hunt's. "If Boris's team won't let him out to debate five pretty friendly colleagues," he asked, "How will he get on with 27 EU countries?" It might have delighted the foreign secretary's backers but on current evidence it isn't the sort of line that will harm his standing. Those that cropped up in the fractious row over prorogation might have.

Much bigger than that gamble, however, is the assumption that Raab will not hit 33 MPs on Tuesday – and with it secure a place at the BBC debate alongside Johnson.


Nobody has an answer on Brexit 

Whether it was Raab's suggestion of proroguing parliament, Rory Stewart's evangelism for the existing withdrawal agreement, Michael Gove's demand for a time limit on the backstop, or the varying shades of commitment to no-deal from everyone but the international development secretary, none of the candidates could offer an answer to the Brexit question that either parliament or the EU will accept. 

Of course, the same is true of Boris Johnson – so in any eventuality, all roads lead to an election. And in that scenario, a critical mass of Conservative MPs believe their best bet is the man who didn't turn up this evening. 


The Tories have abandoned fiscal rectitude 

One of the most striking features of this contest has been the extent to which questions of public spending and deficit reduction – the Conservatives' lodestar for the best part of their decade in government - have barely featured, beyond strategic retail offers on tax cuts. 

That the issue has barely featured in the debate is underlined by the fact that none of the candidates, bar Rory Stewart, have said they will commit to keep the national debt falling, and to maintain the budget deficit at two per cent of GDP or less, as demanded by Philip Hammond. 

The chancellor, of course, is held in contempt by many of his parliamentary colleagues as an agent of Remain and to sign up so publicly to his pledge – no matter how uncontroversial its contents are by any objective standard of Toryism - would have probably been a misstep for anyone seeking the support of Brexiteer MPs.

Yet the field's failure to engage with the question of deficit reduction was no blip. Asked to name their top priority should they reach Downing Street, all offered shades of aspirational guff and none mentioned the economy.

It is a sign of just how profoundly Brexit has changed the priorities of the Conservative Party and its constituent parts.


The unity candidate wasn't on stage

Both Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove repeatedly stressed that they were singularly equipped to unite a fractured party and country. The environment secretary in particular laid it on thick, praising his colleagues with his rhetorical stock in trade: baroque courtesy. 

Yet the uncomfortable truth for both candidates is that a broad span of their party has come to two different conclusions. They think that their strategic aim in the immediate term should be to unite the 48 per cent that voted Leave with itself – and under the Tory banner – rather than with the 52 per cent. And as was evident from the result of the first ballot, they think Boris Johnson is the man to do it. 

In short, they are talking about the wrong kind of unity.


It's too early to write off Rory Stewart

Despite only beating the threshold for inclusion in the second ballot by two votes, the international development was delighted with his first round performance last Thursday. As he saw it, the hardest bit was out of the way - even if only by a hair's breadth. 

Stewart's calculation has always been that his stock would rise if he could convince enough of his colleagues to put him in front of a camera. He did so and gave what was audibly the best received performance in the room. 

Meeting the 33 MP quota required for the third ballot will mean almost doubling his first round result and the balance of probabilities is still stacked against him. But tonight's debate had no clear winner. That is bad news for the bigger cabinet names and good news for Stewart.

Having won the endorsement of defence minister Tobias Ellwood this morning – one of Matt Hancock's 19 supporters – Stewart's hope was that more would follow. His disruptive presence on stage this evening boosts the chances of such a windfall: as shown by the post-match endorsement of Margot James, another minister who backed Hancock in the first round.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.