Boris Johnson has to be pretty sure. In the candidate debate hosted by the BBC on Tuesday evening, he appeared so under powered as if he barely needed arguing.
Two hours earlier, with 126 votes, he was again confirmed by the Conservative faction as the clear favorite for the successor of Theresa May. His strategy team seems to think that now he can only stand in his own way – and therefore better not stand out.
Johnson’s appearance had been anticipated with some tension because he had withheld interviews and public statements in recent days. He had not appeared even for the Channel4 television debate on Sunday, the only contender.
Almost fatherly, he praised the competitors for their arguments, while his own remained weak and inaccurate. Johnson made an unequivocal statement on the issue that interests his future constituents, the members of the Conservative Party, the most: Brexit.
Nobody wanted a no-deal, he said, but it must be clear that Britain is leaving the European Union on 31 October.
Only Sajid Javid, the Minister of the Interior, confessed similarly clearly to the withdrawal date in just over four months. The two “center candidates” – Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Jeremy Hunt and Secretary of State for Environment Michael Gove – were, however, ready for another delay, should the “new deal” with the EU on 31 October only a few hours or days or even weeks away.
After all, four of the five candidates agree on this point: there will only be an orderly exit from the European Union if Brussels changes the withdrawal agreement and makes concessions in Northern Ireland, the “backstop”.
On the other hand, only Rory Stewart, the Minister of Development, who started repeating his answers with the words: “I am the only person on this podium who …” is of the opinion.
Stewart was surprisingly on Tuesday in the third round of parliamentary elections and has since been considered the man who is good for a surprise. Heartily he presents himself as the main opponent of Johnson, as a voice of “reason” and “honesty”.
But in the debate, whose format broke up the answers in mini-soundbites, he could not quite convince. His idea to submit Theresa May’s deal to parliament a fourth time shook the heads of the competition. Not many friends in the Conservative Party should have made Stewart with the announcement that just “not the time for tax cuts” is.
The boyish charm that had made him a favorite of the hearts in the past few days gave way on Tuesday a certain sharpness, which may have arrived as some know-it-all.
For Stewart, the television debate may have been his first setback. Javid and the two contestants of the center, Hunt and Gove, did better than expected. And Johnson, who insisted on dullness, made no major mistake – and so on course for victory.