After days of mudslinging on all fronts, finally the chance to hear the leadership candidates speak for themselves.
Discuss drinks and snacks in advance in the Green Room. Temperatures are rising, both real and metaphorical.
It started relatively friendly Kemi Badenoch in sunshine yellow, rishi tieless, Liz Truss in a pair of killer heels, Penny Mordaunt elegant and well-groomed, Tom Tugendhat gently coquettish. The nagging question in my mind: have Tom and Colin Firth ever been spotted in the same room together?
In fairness, the audience was not a natural Tory audience. The first question – “Why would the public trust any of you?” – was harsh and straight to the point. Truss first out of the blocks: She delivered what she said she would deliver, so there. Putin, Brexit, Northern Ireland Protocol, Focus on Economics. Solid, if slightly wooden.
Penny Mordaunt unequivocally distanced himself from Johnson’s government: ‘I told power the truth’
The compliments weren’t exactly flying, but nobody seemed to want to address the elephant in the room: that this is going to be a dirty old argument
A winner? Too early to tell. But Mordaunt failed to attract the attention she had hoped
Tom (shy smile, friendly glasses) was more relaxed – and more accepting of the trust issue. His unique selling point – and he knows it – is that he has always been critical of the current government and he was keen to take advantage of that, pointing out that it is always easy to criticize your enemies, much more difficult to criticize friends. Are you serving people’s interests or your own career? Quite. Rishi, always the slick professional, was the first to address the questioner directly. The first rule of TV debates: Gain the audience’s trust and engagement. He had tried to agree with Boris Johnson when in doubt, he explained, but in the end the trust was exhausted.
On the other hand, he would not turn away from the achievements of the government. In other words, I’ll have my cake and eat it. Kemi Badenoch looked a little less confident. “We haven’t exactly covered ourselves in glory,” she said, adding that as a minister, she is not afraid to share responsibility for mistakes made. Penny Mordaunt distanced herself unequivocally: “I told the truth to power.”
So far, so predictable. Things got a little more complicated when it came to the question of blue-on-blue attacks between the candidates. Viewers might have been a bit taken aback to learn that the panel, far from mutually loathing each other, all trusted each other. Best friends really.
The compliments weren’t exactly flying, but nobody seemed to want to address the elephant in the room: that this is going to be a dirty old argument. Apart from Kemi: ‘Is Boris Johnson honest?’ asked Krishnan Guru-Murthy. “Sometimes,” she replied to gentle laughter from the audience.
Mordaunt showed her skill as a politician by answering yes, which clearly meant no.
It quickly became clear that this was not so much a test of the relative merits of the candidates as more a caning for the prime minister’s mistakes by Johnson. Much of the fire of Guru-Murthy was directed at the absent person – that is, Boris.
They plowed on anyway. About halfway they started to put a little ground between each other. Sunak’s performance was skillful but his main argument remains his record in government – which remains problematic in the context of Partygate. Mordaunt, hitherto the bookmakers’ darling, has nonetheless been defensive on the issue of trans issues. Both Truss and Badenoch challenged her harshly, almost calling her a liar.
Tugendhat was the first to elicit any positive reaction from the audience, receiving a faint round of applause for his line on the NHS and later for being the only one to vote against the hated social security increase.
That seemed to encourage him: he was getting more confident by the minute. If the audience had a favorite, it seemed to be him. He spoke to them as people, not voters, and sounded like a man with the right motives.
Badenoch also made some progress, despite an annoying and persistent cough. Direct and to the point, both relatable.
In contrast, Mordaunt seemed a little defensive, as did Truss. Despite everything, Sunak was impressive. Experience counts in politics, even if it’s not always a 100 percent track record. He seemed to have the best understanding of details overall. A winner? Too early to tell. But Mordaunt failed to attract the attention she had hoped.