The leaders debate proved one thing, there is nothing that isn't improved by the absence of Boris Johnson

Tom Peck

People have criticised Boris Johnson for not turning up to Channel 4’s Tory leadership debate but, in fairness, it was Father’s Day. Johnson has more places to be than most. Quite how many, nobody knows.

He’s also the only candidate not taking part in Monday’s leadership hustings for Westminster journalists either. Why isn’t he taking part in that one? His team say is too busy doing “debate prep”, for the one debate he is actually taking part in, on the BBC on Tuesday, compared to all the other candidate’s three.

It is, at least, a foretaste of the Johnson premiership that will follow. Where a nation will have its intelligence not so much insulted as carpet bombed.

Channel 4, to their infinite credit, left an empty lectern there where the country’s next Prime Minister should have been. If anything, it was one of Mr Johnson’s least undignified public appearances. As far as I could tell, he didn’t tell any outright lies, which is a start.

Can anyone blame Boris Johnson? Facing questions comes with at least a faint obligation to answer them, and answering questions comes with a least a faint obligation to tell the truth, which is something he cannot do.

He can’t tell the truth about whether he’s ever taken cocaine, which is why he has refused to answer the question three times in the last week. He can’t tell the truth about his plan for Brexit because he doesn’t have one. He can’t tell the truth about anything.

It meant the viewing public were treated to the somewhat mad spectacle of five men competing for a prize they know they stand no chance of winning against the guy who was too scared to turn up and face them, but that wouldn’t be to say that many of them were burdened with any greater desire to tell the truth.

Michael Gove, at one point, claimed that, “the best Brexit deal will be one that spreads wealth around the country more equally.”

At this point, all any sane person can do is stand and applaud the madness. There is no sane analysis whatsoever anywhere that concludes that Brexit will leave the UK with more money to spend. The idea that membership of the European Union has ever prevented the UK from building a more equitable country is, obviously, garbage. And it is hard to see how it could ever be more potent garbage than when suggested by a key member of various Conservative governments of the last nine years, who have deliberately, and strategically, delivered the most savage cuts to the very poorest areas, because such places do not vote Tory anyway, so as George Osbornce once put it, there is nothing to lose.

There was Jeremy Hunt, saying his priority would be to “grow the economy, to improve public services.” Jeremy Hunt is not an idiot. That is why he voted for, and campaigned for, remain. There is not a cell in Jeremy Hunt’s body that thinks for a second that Brexit will grow the economy, and yet, here he must be, standing to be Prime Minister, unable to do anything but ride the wave of the Brexit lie that he is too ambitious to admit – even to himself – will drown him in the end.

Dominic Raab did some stomping about, a bit of berating. Dominic Raab wants to “go back to Brussels with the Malthouse Compromise”, words that, for those of us who have to make a living with our noses pressed up against this filth, go in your ears only to pour petrol on your soul and then set it on fire.

Rory Stewart told everyone, for the hundredth time, that there is no “machismo” solution to the Brexit impasse. Would be alpha males banging on their little lecterns, saying they’re going to go back to Brussels and get a better deal because “they negotiate for a living” (Hunt), or because “they’ve got a track record of delivering against the odds” (Gove) is a complete non-starter.

A sane country would listen to Rory Stewart. A sane Tory Party membership might at least pause for a second and wonder whether they’re about to do the right thing by choosing a man to go out and face the world on Britain’s behalf, a man whose personal, professional and political life is such a disgusting mess he cannot ten minutes of questioning from anyone.

In a few weeks, if events move on as they are likely to, there will be nowhere for Johnson to hide. It will be horrific. Be careful what you vote for.