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The Tory Contest Is Bad TV

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By:Ralph Berry | June 19, 2019

"Excruciating" was the verdict on the TV debate of the five remaining candidates for the Tory leadership. They were perched on stools, like five barflies in search of a bar.  I regretted the absence of a woman, though not for the standard reason. It would have been diverting to see a candidate clad in a fetching little black cocktail number, who would on her barstool rightly have drawn attention from the men. Rory Stewart, the rank outsider now a cult (and supported by Theresa May), announced his maverick qualifications by removing his tie after fifteen minutes and sprawling his legs aggressively. He belongs to the John Wayne school of projective acting.  Stewart was the star who moved up from fifth position to fourth, thus displaying that prized quality of "momentum" which even the dimmest of ex-Cabinet members can recognize and indeed did. The "debate" was conditioned by the giant fact that Boris Johnson had an unassailable lead from the Tory leadership ballots (126 in the latest, with 46 the nearest challenger).  He therefore had to play safe and protect his winning margin, while the others were reduced to making a pitch for a Cabinet place in the new regime. And this was on the whole the result: Boris wins, the others have done decently and can hope for a future. There’s not much point in knocking the Prime Minister in waiting.

Americans do this kind of show much better. Their candidates’ teams contest all details of the format, and would never allow the messy choreography on display here. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stood throughout their encounters, which is proper. Nobody here challenged the BBC arrangements. Nobody seems to understand that form is content.

The preliminaries were more interesting than the main event.  They were shrouded in the rhetoric and folk wisdom of the commentariat, e.g., "front runners never win."  But they do: ask any bookmaker, who will recount cases of winning front runners. Accepting the World Treaty Organization terms would be "self-harm"; this cues into the rhetoric of troubled young women slashing their wrists, when "damaging" would be a more plausible claim. Boris, when declining an invitation to the first TV debate, was said to have "boycotted" the event.  This is a plain abuse of language: "boycott, to engage in a concerted refusal to have dealings with" a person or organization. (Penguin) This has nothing to do with a single refusal to an event, something we all do. And then the ever-present, serial crime of Boris: his gaffes. He is, by the undisputed ruling of the media, gaffe-prone."

They get it wrong with the word itself. "Gaffe" is a blunder, or faux pas. Boris makes very few: he does like calculated provocations, sure to enrage masses of the bien pensants. He thrives on their enmity, and the people love him for it. Above all, he is a lord of language. Consider his response to the perpetually sour Laura Kuenssberg (BBC), who had listed several grave charges against him. "Out of that great minestrone of observations . . . I pick up one crouton . . . that I have been inconsistent." Perfect, and unanswerable. Nobody else in front-line politics is remotely interested in language. Theresa May’s active vocabulary is approximately 36. She may have a larger passive vocabulary, but passive it stays.   

One of the pre-debate charges against Boris is mildly significant. His refusal to take part in the first TV debate was condemned as "cowardly."  In a Restoration comedy, Farquhar’s "The Constant Couple," Sir Harry Wildair is challenged to duel by an Army man. 

"I hope you are no coward, sir." To which Sir Harry replies:

"Coward, sir!  I have eight thousand pounds a year, sir."

Quite so.  Sir Harry is rich and well-placed socially, with no intention of hazarding his life and good fortune.  Boris Johnson is Sir Harry: within weeks he will be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  Only an asteroid can stop him.

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