Candidates Face Off in First Televised UK Leader's Debate

It’s an election in which only a tiny minority of Britons will be able to vote in, yet it will decide the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Whether the public can vote to select the next leader of the Conservative Party or not, the five remaining candidates in the race are facing off Friday night on live television.

This story is developing. Scroll down for the latest updates. 

The race to replace Boris Johnson has seen a series of sifts and votes this week reduce the field from a dozen to just five, with further votes to whittle down those running to two coming next week. Yet, the votes among Conservative Members of Parliament — the only people who have a choice in who is the next Prime Minister for now — are taking a break over the weekend, giving space for a series of events to allow those in the running to show themselves off.

This kicked off with a virtual hustings hosted by a Conservative Party-affiliated blog Friday afternoon in which the five remaining candidates (Kemi Badenoch, with 49 votes at the last vote, Penny Mordaunt with 83, Rishi Sunak with 101, Liz Truss with 64, and Tom Tugendhat with 32, barely over the threshold) were united in saying nothing of interest. Perhaps the candidates were aware the bigger fight of the day was to be the evening’s nationally televised leadership debate and were keeping their powder dry for that. Still, the event was so uneventful even the Daily Telegraph was forced to note in response to one question, there was “no meaningful policy… none of the candidates [gave] a clear line”.

This is being followed by two leader’s debates on national television: Channel 4 tonight, and Sky News on Sunday afternoon. While there are no formal knockout processes due between the two events, it’s conceivable a disastrous performance tonight by one of the candidates with a lower vote share could precipitate an early withdrawal.

Indeed, there has been pressure from within the Conservative party for some candidates to step down early and coalesce around another to improve the chances of getting a particular set of values through to the final round, where two final aspirants will be voted upon by the 180,000-odd paid-up members of the Conservative Party in the country at large. These calls seem to be mainly active on the Brexiteer-right of the party, but there is a problem with the plan: the favoured candidate of these calls, Liz Truss, is one of the less obvious Brexiteers on the ballot paper.

Attorney General Suella Braverman, who certainly is a Brexiteer and was praised by Nigel Farage as having the best pro-Brexit policy of the candidates initially refused to step aside for Truss, who is a former Liberal Democrat, Remain voter, and who even contributed to the George Obsorne-era ‘project fear’ propaganda effort to derail Brexit. Yet, in a remarkable development when Braverman was knocked out of the competition on Thursday, rather than lending the support of herself and her voters to the next-obvious choice, Kemi Badenoch, she instead said she would be backing Truss.

Quite possibly this is a strategic move, making Braverman getting a good job in the next government more likely, and with it a chance to influence Britain’s Brexit policy in the coming years. Yet, it all but scuppers the hopes of Badenoch, the closest thing to an actual conservative standing to be the next Prime Minister.

Other parts of the Conservative Party — which prides itself on being a ‘broad church’ coalition of different views to which it attributes its remarkable success, being the most powerful political party in British history — are also well represented in this race. Media favourite Penny Mordaunt — which news outlets have relentlessly insisted is the membership favourite to win — is also a Brexiteer, but unlike the right-conservative Brexiteers like Braverman and Badenoch might be better described as centrist, even a globalist.

While little known before this competition, increased focus and awareness of her past comments on transgender issues, and the heaped praise from characters like Bill Gates and Tony Blair on her recent book has underlined her progressive globalist bona-fides.

Representing the bland, managerial wing of the party is Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson’s right-hand-man-turned Brutus. During his time in government, Sunak has been quick to spend considerable amounts of money and raise taxes, and is the only Conservative in the race who, like Johnson, received a fine for breaking lockdown rules. Despite the fact Sunak carries all the baggage of the Johnson era and represents the steady-as-she-goes position of managed decline and high tax, high-spending government, Sunak is by far the favourite of the Conservative party elite and is only a handful of votes away from securing a place in the final-two membership vote for leader.

Last — and coincidentally also least, in terms of the number of votes received so far — is neocon Tom Tugendhat, whose pitch for leader is mainly predicated on war with Russia and his previous military service. Westminster chatter is that his team explains away his relatively poor performance so far on the fact he’s not had a chance to shine, and he’ll convince the country in tonight’s televised debate. Anything is possible, and certainly, his totally average performance in today’s earlier leadership hustings is already a massive improvement over his downcast leadership launch video earlier this week. Watch this space.

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Update 2020BST: Second question — how to make a clean break?

The second answer from Channel 4’s studio audience concerned how the prospective candidates would differentiate themselves from the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Penny Mordaunt said that while it is important for a “fresh start”, all of the Conservative leadership candidates ran on the same election manifesto as Boris Johnson and therefore should deliver on the promises made to the 14 million people that put them in office, namely on delivering Brexit. She also stressed the need for social services, such as the NHS, to be optimised to meet the needs of the public.

Tom Tugendhat played up his integrity once again, saying that by merely throwing his hat in the ring was an attempt to restore trust in government, which he said should be in service of the people rather than in leaders.

In one of the harsher critiques of the Johnson administration, and perhaps Liz Truss, Kemi Badenoch said that she would appoint people based on talent, rather than because they were loyal, suggesting that Johnson filled his cabinet with less than competent ministers in exchange for their loyalty to him.

Hinting at his high tax agenda, former Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that he would take a “responsible” approach to the debt incurred during lockdown “even if it’s not politically convenient,” despite the fact that the debt was largely accrued as a result of his lockdown policies. Finally Liz Truss said that she would focus on showing people “spades in the ground” for the government’s “levelling up” projects and take steps to make sure the public’s “tax bills and energy bills come down now”.

Concluding on the section on “trust”, Guru-Murthy turned to the audience and asked them to raise their hands if any of them trusted politicians. There were zero hands raised in the room.

Conservative party leadership contenders Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak at Here East studios in Stratford, east London, before the live television debate for the candidates for leadership of the Conservative party, hosted by Channel 4. Picture date: Friday July 15, 2022. (Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)


Update 2000BST: First question is on honesty — how can the country trust these candidates? 

Can the public trust a new Conservative leader? That’s the first question from Channel Four’s studio audience. Guru-Murthy is characteristically aggressive with his questioning of the candidates and doesn’t miss a beat. You may not like his slant, but he’s on form tonight. First up is Liz Truss, who spoke about her record working on Brexit, remarking “I delivered what I said I would deliver”.

Truss said she has a proven record of delivery and has been loyal to Boris Johnson in public, but challenged him in private.

Next is Tom Tugendhat, who sells himself as the fresh start candidate. He said trust in the Conservative Party is collapsing and claims he’s been holding a mirror up to its MPs, asking whether they have been serving the country or themselves. Namechecking his prior military service, Tugendhat says “I swore loyalty to our country, and that’s where I will always owe my loyalty”.

Characteristically punchy, Guru-Murthy says Rishi Sunak never stood up to Boris in government until the very last moment — when he resigned from government, bringing it down with him. Sunak says he owes loyalty to Boris but “I got to a point recently where enough was enough… and I took the decision to resign because I wanted to be honest”.

Changing tack on the question slightly, Guru-Murthysays tells outsider candidate Kemi Badenoch that because she’s an unknown to the country, she should immediately call a general election if she won the competition. Badenoch throws it back, though, saying it would be illogical as an unknown Prime Minister to immediately go to the polls, and that she should take time to prove herself to the country until the next scheduled national vote in 2024. “As I say on trust, you show, not tell”, she says.

Penny Mordaunt says there is a bond of trust between politicians and the nation, and that MPs have to “tep up and lead, create an environment where… people can move their communities on.” Replying to Guru-Murthy’s remark that she has been the subject of a smear campaign in the press, she says it is a compliment that the others don’t want her in the race.

This round finishes with a quick-fire question — is Boris Johnson an honest man? This gives candidates a chance to distance themselves from the old regime, but breaks Ronald Reagan’s law of political campaigning — never criticise people in your own party. You end up spending more time fighting people you 90% agree with than people you totally disagree with that way, after all. Some interesting answers:

Kemi: “sometimes”

Penny: “he is somebody who has an extremely… there have been some really severe issues and he has paid the price”

Sunak: “I gave him the benefit of the doubt but I had to resign”

Truss: “he has been clear he made mistakes in govt… he said himself some of the statements issued by No.10 were not entirely honest”

Tugendhat: “No.”

Tugendhat gets the only applause of the evening so far for that.


Update 1931BST: The five candidates have taken their positions at the studio set in London for tonight’s debate

Krishnan Guru-Murthy is hosting. He opens with a good dose of classic Channel 4 perspective, talking about scandal and sleaze. Here we go.



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