'Crowds booing Tories': party leader hopefuls weigh up TV debate risks

Jim Waterson Media editor
Photograph: PA

Tory leadership candidates are considering which television debates to take part in, as campaign teams weigh up the risks of derailing their bids to be the next prime minister with an unpredictable live television appearance.

The BBC has confirmed plans to host a hustings on Tuesday 18 June, according to a memo sent to campaigns seen by the Guardian. The programme, chaired by Emily Maitlis, will be called Our Next Prime Minister and be broadcast live on BBC1 at 8pm. All candidates who are still in the contest at the time of broadcast will be invited to take part.

Multiple leadership campaigns privately said they were particularly concerned about appearing in front of live audiences, especially if they represented a cross-section of the general population rather than the roughly 150,000 Conservative party members who will get to choose the next prime minister.

Michael Gove

The environment secretary is to pitch himself as a “unity candidate” capable of attracting leavers and remainers, as he formally declared his candidacy saying: “I believe that I’m ready to unite the Conservative and Unionist party, ready to deliver Brexit and ready to lead this great country.” But robust Brexiters in particular dislike the fact that he stayed loyal even in the final days of the crumbling May regime.

Sam Gyimah

The former universities minister is calling for a 'final say on the Brexit deal' as the only way to break the parliamentary deadlock. Gyimah is the only candidate offering a second referendum on Brexit, saying 'There is a wide range of candidates out there but there is a very narrow set of views on Brexit being discussed'.

Matt Hancock

The health secretary remains a relative outsider, but the longer the race goes on, the more he gains ground for the seemingly basic virtues of being apparently competent and broadly similar to a normal human being, albeit a particularly energetic one. A concerted effort would probably require an image consultant.

Mark Harper

The former immigration minister and chief whip  was behind the controversial 'go-home' vans when working under Theresa May at the Home Office. He resigned as immigration minister in 2014after it emerged he was employing a cleaner who did not have permission to work in the UK. He later served as David Cameron’s chief whip. But he has not served in Theresa May’s government and has, therefore, sought to cast himself as the candidate who offers 'fresh thinking.

Jeremy Hunt

Fears that the foreign secretary would be another overly woolly compromise choice were hardly assuaged when after a set-piece speech he seemed unable to outline why his brand of Conservatism might appeal to voters. Hunt has been backed by Liam Fox

Sajid Javid

The home secretary still has the same weaknesses: he is an uninspiring speaker and some worry he is too fond of headline-grabbing, illiberal political gestures. But he is almost as ubiquitous as Liz Truss, and clearly believes this is his time.

Boris Johnson

The out-and-out favourite, so popular with the Tory grassroots that it would be hard for MPs to not make Johnson one of the final two. He has been relatively quiet recently, beyond his regular Telegraph column, but this is very deliberate.

Andrea Leadsom

The former House of Commons leader, who left Theresa May as the last candidate standing when she pulled out of the previous leadership race in 2016, has decided to have another tilt at the top job, saying she has the “experience and confidence” to “lead this country into a brighter future”. But even with her staunch Brexiter tendencies, she would be seen as an outsider.

Esther McVey

The former work and pensions secretary, who quit last year over May’s Brexit plans, has launched her own in-party campaign group/leadership vehicle called Blue Collar Conservatism, promising to make the party more amenable to voters in deprived communities – mainly through a promise to deliver a strong Brexit and policies such as diverting much of the foreign aid budget to schools and police.

Dominic Raab

Few things say “would-be leader in waiting” like a kitchen photoshoot with your spouse, and the former Brexit secretary duly obliged with this imageawash with tasteful pastel hues. He formally launched his bid in the Mail on Sunday. Among the more core constituency of Conservative MPs, Raab has been pushing hard, as has his semi-official “Ready for Raab” Twitter feed.

Rory Stewart

The cabinet’s most recent arrival – Mordaunt’s promotion to defence led to Stewart becoming international development secretary – certainly has the necessary ambition and self-belief, plus a privileged if unorthodox backstory covering Eton, Oxford, a senior role in postwar Iraq and a bestselling book about walking across Afghanistan. He remains an outsider, not least because of his remain tendencies and slightly 2010 view of compassionate Conservatism. He's become a social media darling and been endorsed by Ken Clarke, but his reputation as 'Florence of Belgravia' may hinder him.

And those not in the running

Sir Graham Brady, Penny Mordaunt and James Brokenshire are yet to declare their intentions. Liz Truss and Amber Rudd have ruled themselves out.

Among other senior figures not expected to run are Brandon Lewis, Chris Grayling and Philip Hammond. Gavin Williamson’s recent sacking after the Huawei leak inquiry will also surely rule him out as an option this time around.

James Cleverly and Kit Malthouse withdrew from the contest.

One source on a leadership campaign said inviting the general public to take part in a programme would damage all of the contenders, especially if there was an adverse reaction from Labour supporters in the room: “If I was Jeremy Corbyn, I’d then just show this video of crowds booing Tories.”

The proposed BBC hustings will not have a live audience, making it harder for campaigns to turn down the appearance. Instead, the invitation said it would draw on questions from people around the UK: “Between now and the broadcast, we will ask members of the public to submit questions and we will select the best of these. The questioners will join the programme from studios around the UK and put their questions to the candidates.”

Related: New Tory leader could avoid immediate confidence vote

The BBC will also host a special edition of Question Time and two Andrew Neil interview programmes on BBC1 with the final two candidates, once the shortlist has been whittled down by MPs.

British broadcasters endured a torturous few weeks at the end of 2018, trying and failing to agree terms for a televised debate between Corbyn and Theresa May over Brexit. This eventually fell apart, with neither side able to agree on the rules of engagement.

This time around most broadcasters have chosen to announce the programmes after preliminary chats with candidates and to then challenge the campaigns to take part while negotiating on detail.

Channel 4 has attempted to get ahead of the BBC by announcing its own leadership hustings, which is scheduled to last 90 minutes on Sunday 16 June at 6.30pm, after the first round of voting among MPs. It will be hosted by Krishnan Guru-Murthy in front of a live studio audience of potential Tory voters drawn from across the UK.

However, multiple campaigns said they were weighing up whether to take part in the Channel 4 show. This is because of the time involved in preparing a candidate for an appearance on national television at a time when the focus of the contest is on winning over MPs rather than party members. Leading candidates such as Boris Johnson were thought to have more to lose by opening themselves up to attack by the rest of the field.

One leadership campaign cited perceived leftwing political bias by Channel 4 – and the presence of an audience – as risk factors, even though the programme would have to comply with Ofcom broadcasting rules. Every campaign has been reluctant to repeat May’s boycott of the BBC 2017 general election debate, when she was mocked for being the only leader not to turn up.

ITV and Sky News will broadcast programmes during the final round of voting, when Conservative members will choose between two Tory leadership candidates.