LONDON — Most of the politicians who are running for British prime minister, to replace the soon-to-be jettisoned Theresa May, appeared together in their first televised debate on Sunday evening — and spent most of their 90 minutes talking about you know what.
But the five Conservative Party contenders in attendance also got in their digs at the man who was the most showy no-show — the front-running Boris Johnson, who was represented at the debate by an empty lectern.
“Where’s Boris?” his five competitors asked.
The current British foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, said that if Johnson could not handle tussling with five friendly colleagues, how would he possibly handle the wily negotiators in Brussels and the leaders of the European Union to get this better Brexit deal everyone promises?
Brexit, again, being the only point of this entire exercise.
The 54-year-old Eton- and Oxford-educated Johnson, former London mayor and foreign secretary, was presumably at home watching the Channel 4 show on television — perhaps with his new girlfriend, the 31-year-old former Tory aide Carrie Symonds, who according to the Financial Times, “has put him on a diet, imposed order on his distinctive blond hair and kept a tight grip on his circle of advisers.”
Johnson declined to appear, he said, because viewers might be turned off by too much “blue-on-blue action.” Which sounds a little kinky but refers to Tories attacking Tories.
Or put another way, Johnson’s fellow Tories attacking him, the front-runner.
No matter, Johnson said, he would appear at the next scheduled debate, this one on the BBC on Tuesday — after the field is slimmed to five, maybe four, in balloting by Conservative members of Parliament this week.
The Sunday debate wasn’t especially newsy. British commentators actually found it a little dull. The candidates all promised to deliver Brexit. But the voters have been hearing that for three long years.
Without Johnson, it looked a bit like job applicants for Johnson’s future cabinet having a full and frank exchange of ideas.
The five candidates (all men; the women were plucked off earlier by parliamentary votes) were asked their thoughts on suspending — the British verb here is “proroguing” — Parliament to break the Brexit impasse.
Sajid Javid, the home secretary, was against it: “You don’t deliver democracy by trashing democracy. We are not selecting a dictator of our democracy. We are selecting a prime minister of our democracy.”
The rebel in the group — the long-shot but very keen international development secretary, Rory Stewart — called out his competitors, including Johnson, by saying that all their threats to leave the European Union by the end of October were macho posturing.
Stewart said, “I think a no-deal Brexit is a complete nonsense.”
A more strident Brexiteer, former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, said that leaving the E.U. without any kind of trade deal or safety net should be on the table and that if he were chosen to replace May, he would immediately prepare for no-deal by passing tax cuts in an emergency budget, essentially putting the country on war footing.
It has not gone unnoticed that the contest to replace May is a little odd — although completely legal.
May came into office after fellow Conservative Party leader and prime minister David Cameron resigned — following his side’s loss in the June 2016 Brexit referendum.
Now, May is being ousted from power, not by the people, but her Conservative Party, because she could not “deliver Brexit.”
May says she could not deliver Brexit only because her party voted down her deal three times in Parliament.
Her successor will be chosen, not in a general election, but by 160,000 or so dues-paying Conservative Party members, in a nation of 66 million.
And that 0.3 percent seems hungry enough to Brexit, but like many, are not really sure how.
Johnson has promised to leave, deal or no deal, by the end of October, the latest deadline offered by the E.U. He has threatened not to pay the E.U. the $50 billion May agreed Britain owed the bloc.
Good luck with that, the Europeans have said. See you in (our) court.
Many economists and British business leaders worry that leaving the trade bloc without a deal will be massively disruptive, for Britain and Europe.
Johnson, however, has said that if the Conservatives fail to deliver on Brexit, the party will be wiped out in future elections, almost certainly by the insurgency of Trump ally and arch-Brexiteer and radio show personality Nigel Farage.
Right now, this contest looks like Johnson’s to lose.
He is the top choice among Conservative members of Parliament and the top choice among Tory voters, according to opinion surveys.
After winnowing the field to two candidates next week, the contest will go before the Tory “selectorate,” which will pick a winner by the end of July.
There are Tory leaders who want to go with Johnson quickly — and get on with it.
Under May’s leadership, the Conservatives have been humiliated in two recent local and European elections.
But the home secretary, Javid, said he thought the party deserved a full airing of ideas and a tough contest. Last election, May’s competitors all dropped out, leaving just May, who proved to be an untested campaigner and, ultimately, a failed leader.
“We had a coronation the last time,” Javid said. “That didn’t work out well, so let’s not make the same mistake again.”