Boris Johnson’s opponents need to define him as a shambolic bully. They won’t do it following the rules, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
The leadership debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt will be remembered for the frontrunner’s failure to back the UK’s ambassador in Washington, but another moment stayed with me.
As the candidates clashed over their tax plans and who was more likely to reinforce the perception of the Tories as a party of the rich, Johnson went on one of his booming rants, playing to the audience and acting the Eton bully – not for the first time that evening.
Presenter Julie Etchingham, who had a tough job and did it as well as she could within the bounds of her role, struggled to cut him off. “Thank you... thank you...” she repeated, with growing insistence. But he didn’t stop until he was done. You’re welcome.
Hunt, in contrast, was free to get tough with his opponent, and his best lines were the ones where he took Johnson on. Did his “do or die” pledge on Brexit mean he would resign if he failed to deliver? Would he lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop a third Heathrow runway? And would he keep Sir Kim Darroch in his job at the UK Embassy in Washington?
There were no clear answers to anything, and Hunt had probably his best day of the leadership campaign. But nine out of ten Tory members have voted already. It was too late.
Hunt, too keen to remind us of his entrepreneurial past and avoid the charge of ‘blue on blue’ aggression, waited too long to put a tackle in on Johnson. It was poor strategy when the Remain campaign sat on its lead and failed to challenge Vote Leave because Downing Street imagined it could stop a Tory civil war that was already raging. It was even worse strategy for Hunt, who had a huge gap to close.
Tony Blair’s advice after a decade of taking PMQs was that as well as challenging what your opponent says, you also had to define them in the mind of the public. Johnson thrives on his image as a entertainer and man of the people; but the other side – the shambolic, flip-flopping bully – is there to be drawn out.
The point of rules is that everyone plays by them. If one side isn’t, you can’t beat them with one hand tied behind your back. You don’t shut someone up by thanking them. And you don’t stop a bully by being polite. You have to go in hard, with wit and the facts – the way Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez goes after Donald Trump’s administration or Eddie Mair went after Johnson in his brutal 2013 interview. With Johnson’s one-time critics like Matt Hancock and Amber Rudd tripping over themselves to keep their jobs in his Cabinet, it’s too late for the Conservative Party to learn that lesson. But the SNP have already taken their gloves off and are preparing for a bare-knuckle fight. Most people assume Ian Blackford was trying to get chucked out of the Commons again by calling Johnson a racist and a liar.
They’ve pulled that stunt before, though – the more significant strategy at play was to stretch convention and get unparliamentary language into Hansard so that nationalist MPs can cite precedent when they say exactly what they think to Prime Minister Johnson.
Jo Swinson will also have been watching the debate on Tuesday night. She’s likely to be the only female party leader to face Johnson in the Commons, and between her and Jeremy Corbyn, the one most likely to expose Johnson’s weaknesses and define him in the public’s mind. She wants to be the nation’s liberal champion – a Johnson premiership and a no-deal Brexit give her that opportunity. She ought to thank him, but she really shouldn’t.