The way some people are talking, the Tory leadership campaign is already over. They seem to believe that Tory members have made up their minds that Liz Truss is the woman who can win them a fifth general election. I would suggest that is far from the case.
My experience from chairing ten of the 16 hustings events in June and July 2019, with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, is that very few people attended having already voted. In addition to the thousands who attended the hustings many thousands more watched online or on the news channels, and this time those numbers will only be higher.
I found chairing the hustings in 2019 a surprisingly positive experience. The members really put the two candidates through their paces and asked some very searching questions. I expect it to be no different this time. I learned a lot about both candidates and so did those present. The questions were very varied with surprisingly few on the usual Tory touchstone subjects of Europe, immigration and tax cuts. I remember in Manchester, in front of a 1,000 strong audience, a 16 year old British Asian lad got up and asked Boris Johnson this question: “Mr Johnson, I suffer from chronic depression and other mental health problems. What are you going to do for me.” A ripple of applause spread through the audience, I assume to salute the young man’s courage for asking his question. It’s the kind of question that can trip up a candidate. Instead of looking panicked, Boris lasered in on him, and spoke to him in such a personal way that it seemed as if the rest of the audience had disappeared. He was quite simply brilliant. There was no bluster, no going off the subject. He made the lad feel good about himself and gave a meaty policy answer alongside some very personal stuff. I remember being very impressed, and thinking to myself, “if only he could be so impressive when answering more standard questions”.
In Nottingham another British Asian youngster had a very pithy, and short question. He was a member of the young Conservatives. “Mr Johnson, you’re a racist, aren’t you?” Boris looked at me in absolute panic, as if he expected me to intervene. Sorry mate, you’re on your own, I decided. I can’t remember his answer, and whether it convinced the questioner, but I mention this as further evidence that these hustings are by no means a waste of time. The audience will ask questions that professional political interviewers like me would never think of in a month of Sundays.
One thing I would advise Messers Sunak and Truss to do is avoid the mistakes made by Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt in 2019. By the end of the series of hustings, I could recite their seven minute introductory speeches. They told the same jokes time after time, seemingly unaware that people watching online or on TV had heard it all before. Mix it up. If Liz Truss repeats her mantra of being “ready to deliver” or “hitting the ground running from day one” the audience should groan. She won’t do it again.
Don’t go on stage with any notes. If you can’t speak for seven minutes without notes, what on earth are you doing running to be leader of the Conservative Party? And be yourself. Jeremy Hunt used to bound onto the stage and wave at the crowd, which as youngsters nowadays would say, was ‘total cringe’, apart from at the final hustings at London’s Excel Centre, which was attended by an astonishing 4,000 party members. I remember looking out into the crowd and thinking to myself “boy has this party changed”. Forty per cent of the faces were non white, something we have now seen reflected in the lineup of the eleven original candidates.
For various reasons I won’t be chairing any of the hustings this time. I understand that there will be a different host for each of the dozen events. That’s a good thing. The candidates will probably find it quite challenging. But there should be another change. Last time, each candidate came onto the stage separately. They did not debate each other. This time there should be twenty minutes put aside where the two of them sit on stools and debate the big issues one on one. At each hustings they should debate a different issue. It won’t happen of course, because the party, just as in 2019, will think it too risky. Shame.
This article was written for the Sunday Telegraph.