Notes from the first Tory leadership hustings

By Chris Mason
Political correspondent, BBC News

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image source, Reuters

It is one of those gigs that is the hearing equivalent of an optician asking you read that pesky last line of tiny letters when you are having your eyes tested.

The Tory leadership hustings hosted by the One Nation Caucus of Conservative MPs began with reporters, me included, starting to loiter outside.

Between us and the action inside, there were two heavy wooden doors and a pretty thick wall - and some parliamentary security staff not particularly keen on us leaning too obviously against either the doors or the wall.

A rather forthright conversation then began between us lot in the press pack and Conservative Party officials about why we weren't allowed in - given those in the room were discussing who should be our prime minister by the end of next month.

The argument from the journalists was our audiences should be fully informed about what is going on, even if the vast majority, those who are not Conservative Party members, will have no direct say in who becomes our country's next leader.

The argument from the Conservative MP Nicky Morgan, one of the organisers, was "this was a job interview, and most job interviews are not conducted in public".

She also made the point that we would see plenty of the candidates in public in the coming weeks.

First up was Home Secretary Sajid Javid. He had an organised briefing operation, with one of his team talking us through the key points their man was making in the room.

"You don't beat the Brexit Party by becoming the Brexit Party," was one of the quotes. There were about 80 people in the room to listen.

image source, AFP
image captionThe leadership contest has attracted a wide range of candidates

Next up it was Rory Stewart, new to the cabinet, but commanding a lot of attention, if not vast amounts of support from his colleagues in the early stages of this race.

No member of his team was there to talk to us, and he didn't want to talk to us afterwards either.

But, we were told, he emphasised again the importance to him of ruling out a no-deal Brexit.

The One Nation Caucus is, very broadly, those on the left of the parliamentary party and those who are pro-European.

Banging of the walls

So the arrival down the corridor of Brexiteers John Redwood and Jacob Rees Mogg suggested only one thing: it was time for former cabinet ministers Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom.

All Conservative MPs were allowed to attend these hustings.

Mr Johnson was welcomed with banging of the walls - a bizarre Westminster ritual which translates as enthusiasm, rather than an attempt to escape.

It just so happened that while the former Foreign Secretary was speaking, someone inside the room kept their foot in the door and so we reporters had a far better chance of hearing what he was saying than we did with the others.

image source, Reuters

His team were also very efficient in filling us in too.

"We must get ready, eventually but not immediately, to beat Jeremy Corbyn and put Farage back in his box. We are facing an existential crisis and will not be forgiven if we do not deliver Brexit on 31 October," he told his colleagues.

Not everyone was onside, mind.

The Tory MP James Duddridge left, telling us that while listening to Boris Johnson, the veteran Conservative Sir Nicholas Soames "has his head in his hands like all his family has died." And Ken Clarke, Mr Duddridge reported, sat "with his arms folded."

'An election winner'

But as soon as Mr Johnson had finished, the former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was puppyish in his enthusiasm for Mr Johnson.

"The only one who can put the Brexit Party back in its box...he is the one who can save the party...the audience recognised you had an election winner," he claimed.

Plenty left when Boris Johnson was finished. MPs were red-faced and sweating, and complaining about how hot the packed room was.

But there was still one more wannabe: Andrea Leadsom, the former Leader of the Commons, turned up for her slot at half past eight.

'Managed exit'

There were still about 40 MPs there to listen.

No briefing from her or her team for us, but we were told afterwards she had talked again about a "managed exit" at the end of October and a series of "mini deals" with the European Union.

Asked afterwards which candidate offered the most unicorns - ideas that were seen to be undeliverable - Nicky Morgan said that was our word, not hers, but Mrs Leadsom probably had the hardest task winning people over in the room.

At the end, one MP wandered up to me and said: "if only we had someone who combined the brains of Rory, the feelgood factor of Boris and the attention to detail of some of the others. The thing is, we don't."

There are more hustings, plenty more hustings to come. We will have a new prime minister in seven weeks' time.

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