Tory contest: gag of the day

Ruth Davidson and Sajid Javid Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ruth Davidson is one of Sajid Javid's highest-profile backers in the Conservative Party

Two more campaign launches in the Conservative contest. And, of course, there is one big, outstanding question as a result. Who told the best gag?

One could normally rely upon Boris Johnson. But he appeared to be determined to practise restraint, to display a New Model Boris: subdued, serious, settled.

So one had to turn to the Sajid Javid launch. Not the candidate, himself, who appeared determined, if understandably a fraction, just a fraction, nervous.

No, Gag of the Day emerged from Ruth Davidson. The Scottish party leader opened for Mr Javid, vaunting his credentials as a modern thinker who could give the Tories a wider appeal.

Then, glancing mischievously at the audience, comprising supporters and representatives of the wicked media, she added: "This is not a phrase I use very often. But he's the man for me!"

Ok, maybe you had to be there, but it drew gargantuan laughter from the supporters - and even a genteel grin from said wicked media.

Mr Javid returned the compliment. No, not directly. But he argued that the change Ruth Davidson had wrought to Tory prospects in Scotland required to be replicated UK-wide (guess which candidate he had in mind to achieve that?).

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sajid Javid has sought to differentiate himself from other contenders, like Boris Johnson

The pitch set out by Mr Javid was clear, even blunt. Indeed, at one point, in response to a question, he described Boris Johnson as "yesterday's news".

That theme of change ran throughout his presentation - and the Ruth Davidson warm-up. Mr Javid said that the Scots Tories had abandoned central casting to opt for Ms D. Follow suit, he advised his colleagues.

There was an appeal to history. He noted that Benjamin Disraeli, the originator of One Nation Conservatism, was scarcely an archetypal Tory leader.

There was an appeal to ditch posh. Skip the old school ties, said Mr Javid (Boris Johnson attended Eton). Vote for Mr Javid, the son of an immigrant shopkeeper, said Ms Davidson, drolly noting that the Tories had prospered under another leader who lived above the shop (Grocer's daughter? Yes, that's the one).

There was relatively little new detail about Brexit, save an insistence that Mr Javid had a credible plan to leave by October 31, including an initiative to work directly with Ireland.

In general, it was all about novelty, an effort to confine Mr Johnson to a cupboard, marked Posh Boy.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Boris Johnson made no mention of his tax plans, which have proved controversial in Scotland

Mr Johnson, of course, was having none of it. He also relied upon a record of Tory success. But it wasn't Scotland. It was his own efforts as Mayor of London. In the UK capital, he said, he had been able to reduce poverty by stimulating economic growth.

And he made a pitch based upon character: the ability to lead, the guts to drive a new Brexit deal. Challenged on his past behaviour, he said he occasionally uttered remarks which brought the plaster down from the ceiling - but he had changed.

Mr Johnson's self-imposed constraint extended to policy. There was no mention of his controversial plan to cut taxes for higher earners in England, funded at least in part by higher National Insurance charges which would apply in Scotland.

On Brexit, he insisted that he was determined to seek a departure deal. He did not want a "No Deal" scenario - although he was preparing for it, in order to focus minds in the UK and in the EU.

But, above all, he was determined to leave on Hallowe'en. If the UK kicked the can down the road again, the Tory party would kick the bucket, he argued, handing power to Jeremy Corbyn.

And that is the issue which hangs over every single launch, every single word, in this quite remarkable contest.

Right now, the contenders are seeking to win the support of their fellow MPs. For the party as a whole, this is about fear - fear of defeat. But for MPs, that fear is personal. It is about their own seats. Who is best placed to rescue them?

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