Feel Good With Johnson or Be Good With Hunt? U.K. Tories Decide

(Bloomberg) -- It’s hard to think of a more damaging story to hit a candidate for British prime minister than one claiming he had been judged a security risk. But then it’s hard to think of any candidate except Boris Johnson who could make a joke out of it.

“It’s not true,” he told a Conservative Party leadership event in Darlington, Northern England, on Thursday. “But I obviously can’t comment any further on intelligence matters.” The audience laughed. He smiled.

British media had reported that Theresa May had tried to block Johnson from seeing some secret MI6 intelligence. “I’m sure that the prime minister wouldn’t comment either,” he said, smiling again.

Johnson and his rival Jeremy Hunt are touring Britain, speaking on the same stage, one after the other, each trying to convince 180,000 Conservative members who get to vote in the party’s leadership election that he’s the right man to succeed May. Johnson remains the clear favorite, but Hunt is trying to use the national tour to close the gap.

Decision Time

By the end of the month, they will know who has won. At stake is the future political make-up of the U.K., and, of course, the direction of Brexit. Johnson says he’s determined to get the country out of the European Union at all costs -- including the potential economic crash of a no-deal Brexit -- by the deadline of Oct. 31. Hunt is more cautious, saying he’d wait a little longer if it meant leaving with a deal.

On Thursday evening in York, a little way south of Darlington, time was running out for Hunt. The postal ballots had arrived through many party members’ doors that morning, and one Tory at the event was proudly showing his friends a photocopy of the vote he’d already sent in -- for Johnson.

Feel Good With Johnson or Be Good With Hunt? U.K. Tories Decide

David Coates, a 77-year-old retired banker, agreed. “He’s the one that will unify the country,” he said. “A clean Brexit, that’s what we want.” Did that mean leaving the EU without a deal? “Absolutely.” He and his friend Bob Umbers were both sporting “Back Boris” badges.

Johnson has been the darling of the party’s grassroots members for years. Indeed he’s just about the only British politician who has a claim to non-political celebrity, known everywhere simply as “Boris.”

Feeling Good

His opening speech was typical of his style: a series of political points woven between anecdotes in which he seemed in danger of forgetting the punchline, before finally getting there. It was greeted with gales of laughter. A local line thrown in demanding the widening of a nearby trunk road raised cheers from the audience.

Hunt calls him a populist, but Johnson has always made Tories feel good about themselves.
Asked about a no-deal Brexit, he said if that happened, it would be fine. “The planes will fly, and there will be clean drinking water, and there will be Christmas dinner.”

Johnson loves to please a crowd. His reluctance to deny the audience what they want on Thursday brought him to the brink of a major spending announcement. He was asked if he’d agree to pay an extra 8 billion pounds ($10 billion) towards elderly care, as requested by a report that morning. "I will certainly commit..." Johnson began, before changing course and offering a vaguer approach.

The Maybot

The Tories certainly want to be cheered up. They have suffered divisions, defections and election losses during the three years in which they’ve been led by May, a buttoned-up vicar’s daughter whose mechanical communication style and inability to connect with voters earned her the nickname "the Maybot."

“We’re a great party!” Johnson told his audience, discussing accusations of racism within their ranks. Trailing in the polls and struggling to deliver their central policy of Brexit, it’s a message the crowd wanted to hear.

Johnson had delivered his opening speech from a podium, but with a stream of consciousness air that charmed his audience. Hunt spoke without notes, but delivered conventionally structured rhetoric.

Feel Good With Johnson or Be Good With Hunt? U.K. Tories Decide

Jacket off, sleeves slightly rolled up, the foreign secretary’s argument was one of taking responsibility. “To govern is to choose,” Hunt began. He insisted there was little difference between himself and Johnson. “Who of the two of us is most likely to be able to negotiate a deal?” he asked.

The Surgeon

Hunt’s manner was reminiscent of a surgeon explaining that treatment is serious, and carries risks, but remains the right course. “What I don’t say is that it’s going to be easy,” he said.

Hunt used the evening to make this his defining difference with Johnson. When one audience member challenged him about foreign aid spending, something many Tories hate, and got a big round of applause, he made a little sad face.

“Oh dear, I’m afraid you’re not going to like the answer I’m going to give,” Hunt began. “But sometimes, well, you want someone who tells you what they think.” He set out the case for helping poorer nations, and won his own round of applause.

Some in the audience crept out of the hall before the end of Hunt’s session, but among those who remained he had some fans. “I slightly favor Jeremy Hunt,” said Philip Bartle, 70, a land agent. “It’s about the standing of the prime minister, whether Hunt would have more respect in the world.” Of Johnson, he was less impressed. “I’ve always thought of him as being a buffoon. I was slightly surprised that he managed to control himself.”

Reality Check

Polling of Conservative members has put Johnson well ahead. Could those polls be wrong, as other have been? The Conservative Party collects no data on its members’ age, gender or even location, which makes it harder for pollsters to judge whether their samples are balanced.

“It’s extremely difficult to do,” said Anthony Wells, of YouGov. “We don’t have a reality check to compare our sample with.” But for all that, Wells was confident that Johnson was ahead in every group of Tory members they had looked at.

Leaving the venue, farmer Stephen Batty set out his dilemma. “Jeremy Hunt will make a better prime minister,” he said. “But Boris Johnson is the one who will see Brexit through. I’ll have to go home and think about it."

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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