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Birmingham Tory Party hustings: Round one in battle to be our next PM - but who won?

By Pete Madeley | Birmingham | Politics | Published:

In a tactic that no one saw coming, Boris Johnson has remained relatively tight-lipped since he started out on a route he hopes ends up in Number 10 in a few weeks time.

The firm favourite to become Prime Minister has done his level best to break the habit off a lifetime and keep schtum in the first part of the campaign, which saw him ease into the final two candidates ahead of Jeremy Hunt.

Conservative Party hustings in Birmingham

But with the leadership hustings now underway, Mr Johnson has no choice but to come out and face his public.

And his first challenge came at Birmingham's ICC on Saturday.

The Tory leadership hustings at the ICC in Birmingham

More than 1,000 Conservative members packed into the venue to see each candidate deliver a seven-minute speech before facing questions from a moderator and the audience.

It promised to be a bumpy ride for Mr Johnson, who strolled onto the stage to loud applause as the world pondered the revelation that police had been called to his home following claims of a domestic dispute with his partner.

Amid allegations of smashed plates, shouting and banging, the smooth journey into Number 10 that he had hoped for was starting to resemble the M6 during rush hour.

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Boris Johnson is interviewed on stage

"There's one question on everybody's lips," the moderator said, getting straight down to business, "they want to know why the police were called to your house on the early hours of Friday morning."

Mr Johnson said that people "didn't want to hear about that kind of thing", prompting cheers and applause from the crowd.

The moderator gave it another go. Does a person's private life have any bearing on their ability to discharge the office of Prime Minister, he asked.

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The crowd booed the question. Some shouted "get on with it" and "move on".

"I've tried to give my answer pretty exhaustively," Mr Johnson said without a hint of irony, before talking about his time as London Mayor – a theme he would return to frequently throughout the afternoon.

The moderator tried again, four times in fact, before eventually concluding – correctly – that Mr Johnson wasn't planning on answering his question at all.

His new tactic had been unveiled as 'if you don't like the question, don't answer it', and his supporters did not appear to give two hoots.

The remainder of his spiel was classic Boris, filled with wondrous phrases, but light on detail.

Boris Johnson

He'd deliver Brexit, which he referred to as an "incubus" that he would "pitchfork" off the backs of the Conservatives.

He was the man to unite his party and the country. He could increase prosperity and bring crime down – just as he says he did as Mayor. He'll increase education funding, and stop Labour from plunging the UK into a "debt spiral".

He'd beaten Zac Goldsmith – another mayoral reference – so Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell with his "plucking fingers" would be no problem.

A "spinning pizza wheel of doom" was mentioned, to raucous laughter from the audience.

Asked about his infamous "f**k business" comment, Mr Johnson insisted it was a "stray remark" he had uttered into the ear of a Belgian ambassador.

Boris Johnson

It was directed at pro-EU business lobby groups, he said, telling the crowd it shouldn't cloud his reputation as someone who had always stuck up for business.

Most seemed to agree.

On HS2 he said he has "anxieties" about its cost but wouldn't commit to scrapping it, taking a far less critical stance than he has done previously.

He said we needed a national campaign to defeat criminal gangs, before an awkward passage on drugs that concluded with him uttering the line: "I think drugs are bad."

As he left the stage, cheers and applause rang out, with some members standing in appreciation.

Jeremy Hunt

It was going to be hard act to follow for Mr Hunt, but the man who replaced Mr Johnson as Foreign Secretary made a fairly decent fist of it.

He had attempted to spice up his campaign with a visit to a curry house in Birmingham that morning, and had apparently taken in a short stroll among shoppers in the city's New Street.

Styling himself as a serious man for a serious job, it wasn't surprising to hear him declare that the UK was in a "very serious situation".

"Get things wrong and and there will be no Conservative government, and maybe even no Conservative Party," he said, his eyes narrowing, before the familiar pledges to deliver Brexit and beat Mr Corbyn were given another airing.

Jeremy Hunt is interviewed on stage

People clapped and nodded.

His threat that "catastrophe awaits" if the party elects "the wrong person" went down less well with members, given that a fair few of them are planning to elect precisely the wrong person who Mr Hunt was referring to.

He described himself as "the underdog" – a tag he appears to be revelling in every bit as much as Rory Stewart did during his brief leadership campaign.

Like Mr Johnson he wants to deliver prosperity for the whole country, which he'll do by "turbo charging" the economy with a series of measures.

Jeremy Hunt

These include slashing corporation tax and backing HS2, describing the controversial rail line as "absolutely vital" to give Britain the "proper transport infrastructure" it needs.

On Brexit, his pitch is that while he will "100 per cent" leave without a deal if necessary, he can be the "responsible" Prime Minister who can negotiate a better deal with the EU.

His comments drew mutterings from the audience, suggesting that many members view Remain backer Mr Hunt as Theresa May Mark II when it comes Brexit.

When it was put to him that he "alienated the vast majority of NHS staff" during his time as Health Secretary, he reiterated his claim that services got safer under his watch.

Mr Hunt also pledged to boost police numbers and increase spending on the armed forces.

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He also showed a lighter side to his character, joking about the internet being kind to him for the first time in his life after #HuntyMcHuntFace began circulating online in support of his campaign.

To the casual observer, he came across as calm and measured – and certainly less evasive than Mr Johnson.

But it won't be casual observers who elect our next Prime Minister.

The race for Number 10 will not be decided by national newspapers or the BBC, it will be decided by around 160,000 Tory members.

Boris Johnson chats to the Star's political editor Peter Madeley

And in the West Midlands on Saturday, there was only one winner as far as members were concerned.

"Boris has the vision and leadership skills to bring the country and party together," said Gareth Jones, a party member for two years who attended the hustings with his wife and fellow member, Ann.

"If we are allowed to see the two sides of him – the serious and the playful – then I think he will win," he added.

Neither of them were concerned about the claims of a bust up with his partner, a view that was shared by the majority of members I spoke to at the event.

Jeremy Hunt

As Simon Bennett, a councillor in Wolverhampton put it: "We all have rows with our partners. It's nothing new."

Roy Molson, a councillor in Staffordshire, was almost a lone dissenting voice, opining that the "knives may be out" for Mr Johnson and that he "may have tripped himself up".

"Whoever wins will have a massive job on his hands," he said. With that point, few would disagree.

One down, 15 to go, but for now at least, it is Mr Johnson who has the upper hand.

Pete Madeley

By Pete Madeley
@P_Madeley_Star

Political Editor for the Express & Star. Responsible for local and national political stories, opinion, comment and analysis.

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