The five remaining candidates in the British Conservative Party leadership race walked through the first live televised debate with few scars but no life-threatening injuries on Friday night.
Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak dealt a few blows to his reputation for serving so long in Mr Johnson’s government, but managed to keep his cool under the pressure.
The candidate who appeared to back down was Foreign Secretary Liz Truss who gave sometimes hard-to-understand answers and pursued her loyalty to Boris Johnson.
She may have feared alienating the UK Prime Minister’s partisan MPs who could prove crucial in getting her into the final couple vital to the leadership race in which the 200,000 Conservative Party members will vote for the next Prime Minister.
In an Opinium snap poll of 1,000 ‘normal voters’ following the debate on Channel 4, she came last with 6%. Mr Tugendhat came in first with 36%, Rishi Sunak came second with 25% and Ms Mordaunt and Badenoch were at 12%.
The show ultimately appeared to nullify a substantial part of Mr Johnson’s remaining credibility by suggesting to those serving in his government that he was now a toxic mark.
Facing a public of floating voters, the candidates were told that the public’s main concerns were about Boris Johnson’s dishonesty which ultimately led to his downfall.
Most turned on the British Prime Minister saying they did not trust him.
When asked if they thought Mr Johnson was being dishonest, the first applause of the night came when Tom Tugendhat, who was wearing a Special Boat Service Association tie, shook his head and said ‘no’ .
Rishi Sunak, whose resignation as Chancellor eventually saw Mr Johnson quit, has been criticized for staying too long in government despite being aware of his boss’s problems with the truth.
“I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as I could and eventually concluded I couldn’t and that’s why I quit,” he told the Channel 4 audience.
Penny Mordaunt, who is the current favorite to win the race, has revealed she turned down a senior government job under Mr Johnson because she did not trust him.
When asked if she could be trusted, she said: ‘You can trust me because I have spoken truth to power. I had the opportunity to serve in a senior position in this government and my response to the Prime Minister was longer than usual.
Liz Truss, who is still in Mr Johnson’s service as Foreign Secretary, responded to the trust question with a rambling answer about the international trade deals she had made. She was stopped by show host Krishnan Guru-Murthy for not answering the question.
“I raised issues with him privately,” she said afterwards. Then she stuck to her previously repeated line that “I owed him my loyalty.”
But political commentators felt Mr Sunak walked through the 90-minute debate with his credibility intact, suggesting he looked confident and relaxed.
Outsiders in the race Mr Tugendhat and Ms Badenoch landed a number of punches, with the former drawing the most applause for a number of eviscerating comments.
However, Ms Badenoch coughed repeatedly during the debate and her team did not respond whether she had taken a Covid-19 test beforehand.
Ms Mordaunt gave a consistent performance, not scoring any significant hits by managing the early questions well and not dropping the ball.
Given Ms Truss’ slightly awkward and convoluted deliveries – she had to be cut off mid-sentence for going over her final one-minute pitch on why she should be Prime Minister – it’s possible she’ll stay now firmly in third place as the next round of voting for MPs will take place on Monday.
An alarming part of the debate came when a number of candidates, including Ms Badenoch, appeared to backtrack on the government’s commitment to a zero-carbon economy by 2050.
Earlier, when asked why he continued to serve in government despite being fined for breaking lockdown rules at Downing Street parties, Mr Sunak, who is a teetotaler, said it was a mistake.
“It was a mistake and I apologize for it then and I apologize again. I wish it had never happened,” he said, looking uneasy. ‘easy.
Wearing a bright yellow dress, Kemi Badenoch, who was raised in Nigeria until the age of 16, made a number of sharp comments, undeterred by her government colleagues.
Ms Badenoch, the former equality minister, chastised Mr Tugendhat for never serving in government and therefore not having to make tough decisions. “There are no solutions, only compromises,” she chided him.
Ms Mordaunt was personally attacked in the newspapers, in a campaign of dirty tricks potentially orchestrated by Ms Truss’ team.
“Did you get the hounds out of Penny Mordaunt’s stalking in the papers?” asked Mr. Guru-Murthy. “I’m running an all-positive campaign,” she replied.
In another attack which showed Mr Sunak’s vulnerability for serving in Mr Johnson’s government, he was criticized for accepting the 1.5% National Insurance increase to pay the NHS after the pandemic.
Mr Tugendhat, who served alongside British special forces in Afghanistan, revealed a private conversation he had with Mr Sunak.
“We had a long conversation about it, and you laid out your position and I asked, ‘why the hell was that going to be necessary?’ You said “because the boss wanted it”.
Mr Sunak, who appeared momentarily dejected, said he also supported the hike. “The Prime Minister was right to want to tackle the Covid backlog. And if we invest in public services, we have to pay for it”
The candidates will now face another televised debate on ITV on Sunday evening before the next round of MP voting on Monday. Whether the TV test offers clear winners or losers remains to be seen.
Updated: July 15, 2022, 8:45 p.m.