This Tory leadership contest may already have a clear winner but Tuesday’s debate revealed a glimpse of the future.

Dominic Raab was the latest candidate to be eliminated from the Conservative Party Leadership Contest, in a significant evening in the race to become Britain’s next prime minister.

After gaining the sufficient number of votes to progress into the third round of the contest, five candidates then faced each other in the BBC’s televised debate. 

Key Headlines from the Debate:

  • All candidates agreed not to hold an election until at least Brexit was resolved
  • Significantly, all spoke of the need to move away from the public service cuts of the Cameron/Osborne era. 
  •  None of the candidates revealed their Brexit plans in detail, mainly out of fear of alienating (especially for Boris Johnson) their uneasy coalitions of support between Remain and Leave Tory MPs. 

Rory Stewart was the headline result from Round Two increasing his votes by 18MPs — reflective of his increasing momentum in the contest. Rather than, as expected, the debate isolating Boris Johnson, Stewart deliberately appeared isolated from the others in his attempt to portray them as unrealistic in both Brexit and taxation proposals. Continuing his unique stance, Stewart was the only candidate who refused to promise cuts to taxes, saying that he would not be able to do so because of the current economic situation. However, his repeated rhetoric of being a realist was not translated into clear policy proposals either, making it unlikely that we will switch to Stewart. It will be difficult for him to succeed in Round Three.  

Most Interesting Moment: When after about five minutes, Stewart decided to take his tie off. 

Biggest Weakness: His continuing support for Theresa May’s failed withdrawal agreement; which after failing to pass three times in the Commons, undermines his stance as a realist. 

Overall: Stewart will be one to watch, as he cements himself as leader of the liberal wing of the Tory Party. Very unlikely to become PM, but may be able to influence government policy towards a more liberal direction. 

Sajid Javid only just scraped into Round Two of the contest after securing precisely 33 votes — the number required to progress — and this weakness was clear as he took up a more hardline Brexit stance, agreeing with Boris Johnson of the need for a deadline to the negotiations. Javid was quiet to begin with, and struggled over clear proposals about the backstop, but performed well when talking about the need to increase investment and spending into public services. 

Most Interesting Moment: His greatest moment was when he directly criticised Stewart for not challenging Trump over recent comments about Sadiq Khan, and jumped the other candidates into agreeing to an investigation into Islamophobia in the party. Strong ground for Javid and he took advantage of it. 

Biggest Weakness: Backstop proposals. When he spoke of technology existing to resolve the issue; contradicting a recent Home Office paper

Overall: If Javid can gain votes from Stewart and perhaps Raab and progress into the next round, then against Gove or Hunt, his credentials as the ‘change’ candidate could make him the outside bet for finishing second. 

Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt both began the debate in danger of appearing as ‘the same’. They both took very similar Brexit stances and united in attacking Boris Johnson over his No-Deal position. However, over economic policy, Hunt performed well, speaking of the need to cut taxes for business and workers by increasing the rate of growth. Gove appeared strongest when discussing his personal connection to concerns over Foster Care Policy. 

Most Interesting Moment: Michael Gove was the only candidate to readily talk of Jeremy Corbyn, echoing his success in challenging the Labour Leader in Parliament in January’s no-confidence debate. This was a clear strategy for Gove to appear with the credentials of a leader, and as someone who could win a future election. 

Biggest Weakness: For Hunt and Gove the results of the contest today, with H gaining 46 and Gove 41 votes, revealed two campaigns stalling. For Hunt it is possible his campaign has reached a ceiling of maximum support, with Gove more likely to secure a few more votes from Raab. 

Overall: Hunt and Gove emerged from the debate as moderate voices, in the centre of the party. This could be encouraging to Tory MPs not wanting someone to attack Boris Johnson in a final round, which could cause long-term damage to a Johnson government before it has even begun. 

Boris Johnson sat throughout the debate as quietly as possible, deliberately avoiding engaging with attacks from Raab and only occasionally revealing the bombastic personality we are used to seeing. Tonight was all about ‘damage limitation’ and for Boris that was successful. However, rather than turning to the country and Tory members, speaking directly to the next key group in this contest, he squandered the opportunity and sat rather sulkily as if knowing his job was done concerning the first stage of this contest amongst Conservative MPs. 

Most Interesting Moment: After Raab’s departure, Boris Johnson is the only remaining candidate who didn’t vote for May’s deal the first or second time round. Despite these hard-Brexit credentials, and challenging the risks of No Deal — though rather more quietly than in his previous statements — Johnson did not ‘guarantee’ leaving on October 31. With his Brexit Policy appearing to centre around the backstop, will Boris be able to keep the ERG and other hard-line Brexit Tory MPs on side, with this slow but clear moderation in his Brexit stance? 

Biggest Weakness: He failed to counter criticism concerning his use of language, which offended Muslims, about burqas and also when he inadvertently led to the lengthening of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s sentence in Iran. These are the very incidents that stimulate concern that he isn’t credible prime minister material. His failure to take advantage of the audience only heightens these concerns. 

The Conservative Party’s fate rests on its ability to secure a successful Brexit and tackle key domestic policies, such as housing, wages and restructuring the economy post-Brexit. The most significant legacy of Tuesday’s debate may be the beginning of a Sajid Javid/Boris Johnson alliance, (‘I agree with Saj’ said Boris, notably, at one point) and a highly risky promise from the two candidates agreeing on the need to leave by October 31. If we are not out, or nearly out by then, both the Brexit Party and Labour Party have plenty of material to distribute around Facebook and Twitter.

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