This is an article I wrote for the Telegraph which went live on their website an hour after the end of the Channel 4 News Tory leadership debate.
Every underdog candidate in a leadership election needs a game-changing moment, and Michael Gove needs this more than most. Tonight did not provide it. He was overprepared, too full of pre-prepared lines and too forced. Repeating you have a record of delivery doesn’t cut the mustard. I suspect the word ‘delivery’ was Gove’s equivalent of ‘I agree with Nick’. Gove was, as usual, very eloquent and spoke with great clarity, but apart from praising his own record, it’s difficult to take away any great vision. He had a few sly digs including one at Theresa May, when he said “Not everyone who has tried to deliver Brexit has believed in it.” True enough, but possibly a needless jibe. His weakest answer came on the effect of a no deal Brexit on farmers. I suspect his claim that “I won the referendum,” might have been contested by a certain blond bombshell, had he turned up. Gove’s best line came when he gave an answer on knife crime which Sajid Javid should have given. He constantly referred to ‘Saj’ ‘Dom’ or ‘Krish’ but thankfully stopped short of referring to Jeremy Hunt as ‘Jez’.
I’m sure I was not alone in being irritated by Rory Stewart commencing many of his answers with ‘So…’, but there’s little doubt that he resonated well with both the studio audience. The trouble is with Rory is he’s great at the populist unspecific rhetoric, full of meaningless, virtue signalling mush, and light on the detail. He’s great at self-deprecation, but leadership? He took on Dominic Raab right from the off and accused him of machismo. What will we take away from this? ‘Believe in the bin’. His flannelling on mental health was the weakest part of his performance, although his claim to be an outsider right at the end took some beating. Eton and Oxford. Need I say more? Having said that, he made sure he got more time than any other candidate, and was given free rein by Krishnan Guru-Murthy with none of the difficult questions thrown at the others. In TV terms he was the clear winner of this debate. In persuading Tory MPs to vote for him? Not so much.
Grew into the debate as it went along, after a very quiet and nervous start. He has a slightly robotic way of speaking and there were times when you could see he couldn’t quite find the words he was looking for. He wasn’t afraid to have a dig and accused Rory Stewart of wanting to create a citizen’s assembly by dialling 50,000 people from a phone book. Ouch. And then he pointed out he went to a different kind of college to Rory Stewart. Double ouch. On Brexit he seemed vague, seemingly believing a bilateral deal with Ireland would unlock everything. Ain’t gonna happen. He rightly said that a responsible PM would prepare for no deal which hasn’t happened over the last three years, apparently forgetting his own role in that failure. Sajid’s big advantage in this contest is his background and not being, as he said, from ‘central casting’. He needs to play that for all it’s worth. His strongest line was his concluding one. “We need to show we don’t just tolerate modern Britain. We love it.”
My teeth grated almost as soon as he first spoke when he called the presenter ‘Krish’. But the grating soon stopped. This was a polished performance by someone who has the advantage that he looks like what many people imagine a prime minister ought to look like. He had more stage presence than the others and used it to his advantage. He had some good jokes and was the first candidate to comment on the fact that Boris Johnson hadn’t show up. “If Boris’s team won’t let him out to debate five pretty friendly colleagues, how will he get on with 27 EU countries?” But on no deal he flipflopped by firstly agreeing with Rory Stewart, then two minutes later saying he’d embrace no deal if there was no prospect of a good deal. At one point he casually looked at his watch, something which cost George H W Bush dear in a debate with Bill Clinton in 1992. Nevertheless, he reinforced his position as the leader of the chasing pack.
Was given less time than the others and because he didn’t assert himself enough and struggled to make himself heard. Given that he is seen as on the hard right of the party he has a great gift in that he sounds as if he’s the voice of sweet reason. Made a great play of being the only candidate to promise to deliver Brexit on 31 October come hell or high water but was unconvincing on proroguing parliament. He had a running feud with Rory Stewart, albeit a polite one. At one point he told him to stop “misrepresenting my position”. He told Michael Gove he would “buckle” because he would take no deal off the table. When he was asked by Rory Stewart what the tariffs would be on Cheddar he missed an opportunity to roll his eyes and ask why would anyone in their right mind import Cheddar!? Best tweet of the evening went to comedian Dom Joly who said: “Raab is taking the opportunity of the ad break to steal Rory Stewart’s dinner money.”