The elephant may not have been in the room, but he was still taking up space.
The empty podium between Dominic Raab and Sajid Javid signalled either the complete arrogance of the frontrunner for the Tory leadership or a deep-seated fear in Boris Johnson that he may have been expected to actually answer direct questions.
Certainly it allowed his competitors to taunt him in his absence; what were his prime ministerial qualities if he could not bring himself to face five of his parliamentary colleagues?
But with Mr Johnson absent from the Channel 4 debate last night, it left the five free to tear strips off each other over Brexit and the potential suspension of Parliament to push Brexit through by Halloween – with outsider Rory Stewart the accepted “winner” of the evening.
Mr Raab felt the full force of the sharpest clashes after he refused to rule out proroguing Parliament, insisting it should remain an option.
He said: “I don’t think it is likely but it is not illegal. The moment that we telegraph to the EU we are not willing to walk away at the end of October, we take away our best shot of a deal.”
Mr Stewart, the International Development Secretary, said shutting down Parliament was “undemocratic” and “deeply disturbing” and would not work. “Parliament is not a building,” he said. Parliament is our democratic representatives and they will meet regardless of what the Prime Minister wants,” he said to applause from the studio audience.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was the “wrong thing to do” while Mr Javid, the Home Secretary, added: “You don’t deliver democracy by trashing democracy. We are not selecting a dictator.”
Mr Raab warned that Parliament could not stop a determined Prime Minister, saying: “It is near impossible to stop a government that is serious”, before Environment Secretary Michael Gove – who earlier said he was the man Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn most feared – declared he would be the defender of democracy. “You cannot take Britain out of the EU against the will of Parliament,” he said.
In the first televised debate of the campaign, the five candidates taking part all agreed the next Prime Minister had to take Britain out of the EU. Four said they would be prepared to do so without a deal but Mr Stewart said that it was not a credible threat because the EU was aware of the damage it would do the UK.
“We are not going to get a different deal from Europe,” he said. “A no-deal Brexit is a complete nonsense. It is going to deeply damage our economy.”
Mr Javid said it was a “complete nonsense” to take away the threat of no deal although he acknowledged not enough had been done to prepare for it. “The number one mistake was not planning for no deal. I have never walked into a room without the ability to walk away without signing.”
Mr Hunt said the next Prime Minister had to be prepared to sit down and negotiate with Brussels to get a better deal than that negotiated by Theresa May. “It is fundamentally pessimistic to say we cannot do that,” he said.
Mr Gove said he had the experience to renegotiate the controversial Northern Ireland backstop which proved the key stumbling block to getting Mrs May’s deal through Parliament. “I would ensure we have a full stop to the backstop,” he said.
But Mr Raab, who quit as Brexit secretary over Mrs May’s agreement, said that as a committed Brexiteer he could be relied on to deliver Brexit. “I believe I am the candidate most trusted to get us out of the EU by the end of October.”
The Q&A-style Tory leadership debate, with an audience of “floating voters”, started with a question from the audience about how the party could beat Mr Corbyn and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage in an election, but also took in questions about drugs, mental health and why Mr Javid had not been invited to the recent state dinner with US President Donald Trump.
Asked how the new leader would “reunite” the country, Mr Javid touched on the third anniversary of the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, saying: “One of the things that she said so often was that we have got so much more in common as a country.”
Candidates were also asked about their greatest weakness. Mr Gove said “impatience” before host Krishnan Guru-Murthy asked if it was hypocrisy, mentioning his recent admission to using cocaine. “I made a mistake,” he said. “I learnt from my mistake.”
Mr Raab said he was restless, while Mr Stewart admitted having “a lot of weaknesses”, including being prone to changing his mind. Mr Javid admitted he was “very stubborn” and added: “If you want to be Prime Minister you need to be ready to listen.”
Mr Hunt joked that “occasionally” getting his wife’s nationality wrong was a weakness but also drew on the junior doctor scandal when he was health secretary, adding he could “be better at communicating what you want to do”.
The bookies’ odds after the debate still had Mr Johnson ahead, with Mr Hunt and Mr Stewart tied in second.