Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Boris Johnson was not his usual self... like Samson shorn of his locks

Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Boris Johnson was present at last night’s BBC debate, yet he wasn’t really there. Not the Boris we know.

The larger than life one with the colourful turn of phrase who never fails to amuse, enrage, and entertain in equal measure. The one who, uniquely among British politicians, is known simply by his first name.

The Boris who turned up to debate with his four rivals for the Tory crown was subdued and contained.

He is so far ahead in the leadership race that the instruction from the backroom boys was clearly to do or say nothing that would turn imminent victory into defeat.

For once in his life, he clearly listened to advice to tone it down.

And yet by playing it safe, he lost the very thing that makes him so popular with Tory grassroots — his personality.

It was like watching Samson shorn of his locks.

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On TV against such mediocre performers, Boris should have shone. Three years ago at the BBC’s Brexit Wembley debate, he stole the show with his declaration that a Leave vote would be the UK’s ‘Independence Day’.

There were no memorable lines last night. No quips or jokes.

This was Boris as we’ve never seen him: beige and bland and utterly forgettable.

He avoided the car crash so feared by his handlers.

The most uncomfortable part of the debate for him was when he was challenged over a newspaper article in which he’d compared women who wear burkas to letterboxes.

His words had been lifted from the article and “escalated”, he said. To you and me, he was simply quoted. Forgetting the name of the man who had raised the Islamaphobia question and referring to him as my “friend” instead of Abdullah wasn’t great but it won’t cost him Tory votes.

And Johnson could complain with justification that BBC presenter Emily Maitlis seemed more focussed on interrupting and pulling him up than she did any other contender.

The only comfort for Boris was that none of his rivals did enough to seriously challenge him. Jeremy Hunt was safe, solid and low energy. His work on persecuted Christians and his abortion views have won him the DUP’s admiration.

He wore a Union flag badge in his lapel last night — maybe sent from Arlene as a good luck charm!

Michael Gove showed his wide experience and gravitas but just isn’t likeable.

Sajid Javid came across immensely likeable but lightweight.

Rory Stewart has become the media’s favourite Tory but he pulled enough stunts last night to qualify as a Tony Blair wannabe.

He tried so hard to be different — to be one of us, and not one of them — that it backfired.

Removing his tie, sitting on the edge of his seat, the bowed head and all the theatrical gestures, were just too contrived and gimmicky.

He’s been presented by the media as the only statesman in the race, but last night he was very much a poor man’s Emmanuel Macron.

All in all, the debate was a damp squib. The BBC would have been better just restricting the discussion to Brexit.

Trying to cover so many issues meant that nothing was adequately addressed.

A poor format, moderated badly, let to a chaotic hour that left the audience none the wiser.

You’d struggle to say that any of the candidates emerged as Prime Ministerial material.

Javid is the only one not from a public school and Oxbridge background. It was cringe-worthy to see the other four try to pass themselves off as plebs at every opportunity by digging deep into their family histories.

And so keen were they all to agree with criticism of the UK’s social and economic status quo, that you never would have guessed the Tories have been in power for almost a decade.

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