Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

Credibility the key as Conservative leadership contenders clash

How the candidates come across may come down to the consistency of their views

Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, who are the final two contenders for leadership of the Conservative Party. AP 
Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, who are the final two contenders for leadership of the Conservative Party. AP 

The two candidates to become the UK’s prime minister will on Tuesday night finally face off live on TV for the first time.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his predecessor, Boris Johnson, are set to lay out their visions to the 160,000 Conservative members who will decide on their new leader and prime minister

Mr Hunt has recently presented himself as a hardworking entrepreneur whose energy could drive the country forward.

Both have appealed to the ideals of party members by promising tax cuts that rivals have called unnecessary or impossible.

Each spent hours on Monday running through every possible scenario with their campaign teams.

While Mr Hunt, regarded as the outsider, has not been camera-shy, Mr Johnson has consistently tried to hide from the media over fears that he is prone to gaffes.

His critics say he is untrustworthy, prone to distorting facts and often offensive to minorities. He has a habit of contradicting himself, which has led to accusations of making up policies to suit his audience.

Mr Johnson has been accused of making contradictory promises to MPs, trying to gain as much support as possible despite ideological differences in the Conservative Party.

This led Rory Stewart, formerly a candidate to be prime minister, to declare: “The only way we are going to have stability in our government, or our party, or our country, is if people trust us.”

Dr Charlotte Burns from The UK in a Changing Europe think tank said this could be seen in his “patchy” attitude towards climate change, a topic of typical scepticism among Conservative members.

Mr Johnson was vocally opposed to a third runway at Heathrow Airport but backed an airport in the Thames Estuary.

The most scathing criticism of Mr Johnson came from his former editor at The Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, who recently said there was little debate about Mr Johnson’s “moral bankruptcy, rotted in a contempt for truth".

Mr Hastings said his former employee was a “brilliant entertainer” but one unfit for national office because he cared only for “his own fame and gratification".

Mr Hunt is regarded as far more reliable and probably favoured by the general public, but he is tainted by his decision to vote to remain in the EU during the referendum in 2016.

He is also despised by many in the medical community for his handling of the junior doctors' strikes when he was health secretary.

But ultimately, Conservative Party voters are likely to be motivated by one thing: Brexit.

Both prime ministerial contenders favour leaving the EU with a deal but are prepared for a no-deal or hard Brexit if necessary.

The difference is that Mr Johnson wants to leave on October 31 whatever happens, whereas Mr Hunt said he would be prepared for a small extension if a deal looked likely.

Prime Minister Theresa May is stepping down after her withdrawal agreement with the EU was overwhelmingly rejected by Parliament three times.

The main issues for whoever takes her place is the insistence from the EU that the Brexit deal will not be renegotiated and a heavily divided parliament.

“We’re going to have a new prime minister with the same Parliament and there is no majority in parliament for no deal," Prof Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe, said recently.

"There is no majority for a referendum and there is no majority for the deal. It is very hard to see how any of those things change,” .

Mr Johnson, also the former mayor of London, is still the overwhelming favourite. His insistence that Brexit will happen on October 31 has been a big help.

Despite his proclivity for saying offensive things, his highly eurosceptic history and promotion of Brexit will be favoured by the mainly white, ageing party members who will be voting.

The same voters regard Mr Hunt as a Remainer at heart.

Initially, a core of Mr Johnson’s support from MPs came from the highly eurosceptic wing of the party who believe he will finally take the UK out of the EU on October 31.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, has argued that Mr Johnson is the ideal candidate to rally against the Brussels elite and restore trust in UK politics.

“He has devoted his distinguished career to making the case against Brussels," he recently wrote.

"As a young journalist he exposed its folly, vanity and hunger for power.

Mr Rees-Mogg, echoing the bullish outlook of many of his allies, wrote in a column for the Daily Express that Mrs May’s deal would have made the UK “a vassal state compelled to pay tribute to its European overlords”, in a column for the .

But now Mr Johnson has also attracted the support of a number of "moderate" senior Cabinet members who fell out of the race to be prime minister and now have their eyes on top government jobs.

Interior Minister Sajid Javid, initially a contender to become prime minister, is among those to throw his weight behind Mr Johnson. Mr Javid wants to become Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Many rallied in support of Mr Johnson because they saw him as charismatic and breaking the mould.

His father Stanley said leading journalist such as Mr Hastings were sloppy about the facts, as he defended his son’s comments that woman in burkas look like “letterboxes".

Another commentator, Robert Shrimsley, pointed out that Mr Hunt was Mr Johnson’s preferred opponent because he is seen as a “continuity” to Mrs May, rather than something radically different.

This is despite the fact Mr Hunt is more popular among voters who are not Conservative Party members.

Alistair Burt, until recently the foreign office minister for the Mena region, has served under both men and is a staunch supporter of Mr Hunt.

While refusing to slam Mr Johnson, Mr Burt has said he preferred the approach of his rival.

“He started his own business and did well,” he wrote as he announced his support for Mr Hunt.

He came into politics to serve in public life and has held two of our most trusted positions – those at health and in the Foreign Office.

“I have worked with him in both and know him to be diligent, hard-working, up to speed with the facts, and capable of appreciating the pain and distress of the hardest of individual circumstances, from medical accident to hostage victims.”

Despite this, many believe the only person who could stop Mr Johnson on Tuesday night is himself.

Updated: July 10, 2019 01:47 AM

SHARE

SHARE