Brexit: Absent Johnson emerges unscathed from TV debate

Tory frontrunner fails to participate in the debate as PM contenders struggle to offer solution to Brexit conundrum.

Boris at launch - Reuters
Britain's next prime minister will be decided by the Conservative MPs [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – The elusive favourite to become Britain’s next prime minister emerged unscathed from a television debate, despite refusing to take part.

Boris Johnson did not attend Sunday’s Channel 4 debate, which was expected to expose him to sustained fire from five rivals seeking to lead the ruling Conservative Party and hence become Britain’s next leader.

Secretary of State for International Development Rory Stewart, who mounted a credible challenge to Johnson with his more moderate Brexit position, scored well with the audience.

Britain’s next prime minister will be decided by a multi-step process which sees Conservative members of parliament (MPs) vote in a series of ballots to narrow the field down to two candidates by June 22, after which the full Conservative Party membership will have one month to choose between them.

Johnson’s five rivals largely refrained from attacking him during the Channel 4 debate, saving their animosity for opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Only Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – seen as Johnson’s likeliest challenger in the final vote – went on the attack.

“Where is Boris?” asked Hunt, “If he can’t join this team with five colleagues, how is he going to fare with 27 European countries? He should be here to answer that question.”

Johnson resigned from his position as foreign secretary in July 2018 to protest against the Brexit deal Prime Minister Theresa May had reached with the EU. In May this year, he announced his candidacy for the Conservative Party leadership after May’s resignation.

He went on to win 114 votes in the first round of MP votes last week, giving him a commanding lead in the race to succeed May.

David Jeffery, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool who has studied the Conservative Party, said: “The only real question is: Will Boris ruin his chances in the next debate?”

Observers will be watching to see how he fares in a debate on the state broadcaster BBC scheduled for Tuesday evening – following the elimination of at least one of the candidates in the second ballot of MPs earlier in the day.

Mike Bird, the Conservative leader of Walsall council – a region in the West Midlands that voted heavily for Brexit – said: “I don’t think he will win: He was the man who was going to lose this election rather than win it.

“Boris has got great charisma. People on the street love him. But conversely, there are those in government and local government who say he keeps dropping the ball.”

Raab under attack

Hardline Brexiter and former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab has come under sustained attack for hinting last week that the next prime minister could suspend parliament to force through a “no deal” Brexit, something economists say would be disastrous.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid, one of the contenders in the leadership race, told the debate audience: “We are not selecting a dictator of our country, we are selecting a prime minister of one of the proudest parliamentary democracies in the world.”

Environment Secretary Michael Gove – a candidate whose chances seem slim after an admission that he took cocaine – piled further pressure on Raab.

“One of the reasons why I argued why we should leave the European Union was to make our parliament stronger, to reinvigorate our democracy,” he said.

“It would be a terrible thing that, having said that we should have more power in this country and trust our institutions more, we did as Dominic Raab seems to be implying and shut the doors on parliament.”

Stewart made an appeal to the centre ground against a no deal Brexit, telling the audience: “One of the reasons why I absolutely want to reject this push for no deal Brexit and I absolutely want to reject the politics of Corbyn is that I think the energy in this country is in the centre-ground, with pragmatism, with compromise.”

Simon Usherwood, reader in politics at the University of Surrey and deputy director of the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank, said the debate was not a “game changer” and that in spite of the fact Stewart “had some good lines, that’s still going to have more of an impact with the public at large rather than MPs – who are not likely to have seen anything that is going to change their minds.”

Jeffery added that Stewart delivered some punchy lines, “but he is still trailing massively in MPs nominations and latest polling still has him trailing far behind Boris – so I don’t think it’s changed the narrative.”

Bird, a supporter of Raab’s Brexit position, said Gove came across as a “man of experience” and was set to go head to head with Hunt.

“I have said from Day 1 that I think Raab has got a lot to offer and he would have been my choice – having said that, Michael Gove does come across as the man of greater experience, but we could see Raab narrowing that gap.”

The Farage factor

The other absent elephant in the room in the debate was maverick politician Nigel Farage, whose new Brexit Party – the big winner in European elections in May – poses a serious threat to the Conservative Party.

Stewart has insisted that he would include Farage in talks to resolve the Brexit impasse that has paralysed British politics, but other candidates insist it would not be wise to “out-Brexit the Brexit Party”.

Hunt told the audience: “I think all of us agree that the only way to deal with the Brexit Party is to deliver Brexit. But you don’t beat the Brexit Party by becoming the Brexit Party.”

Bird told Al Jazeera: “As far as I am concerned Farage is a one trick pony. Jeremy Hunt made the point: The answer to Nigel Farage is to deliver Brexit. Talking to Farage like Stewart has is absolutely the wrong thing to do.”

Jeffery added that evidence from Europe showed centre-left parties that aim to match the rhetoric and policy positions of radical right populist movements merely end up emboldening them.

“The difference here is that the Brexit Party spans the ideological spectrum with one unifying image, which is to deliver Brexit.

“If you deliver Brexit it will take the wind out of the Brexit Party’s sails.”

Source: Al Jazeera