Tory leadership race: It’s personal and the gloves are off as Boris Johnson faces many jibes

Is it the 400 guineas? The Cheltenham Gold Cup? Oh no, it’s the Unicorn Grand National.

Yes the most predictable yet consequential race in town is officially under way. We’ve now heard from many of the leading contenders to succeed Theresa May.

Matt Hancock, Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove have all launched their campaigns. More will follow in the coming days.

I watch agape and aghast; a contest which is becoming more surreal by the day. To listen to the candidates is almost to experience the closest thing any human can come to time travel.

Far from rising to the gravest national moment, that which exists in 2019, so often these candidates are determined to play the contest of 2016, instead.

Jeremy Hunt, for example, assured the audience that he was the best option because “I’m a great negotiator. I’ve been negotiating all my life.”

Leaving aside what Mr Hunt was negotiating for in his early years beyond his mother’s milk, it is an irrelevant boast. The negotiations are over, there is no further deal with the EU to be done.

Likewise the candidates we heard from today continue to reheat many of the components of Theresa May’s stolid political regimen; assurances from Matt Hancock that we can renegotiate the backstop; promises from all of the candidates that electronic solutions to the Irish border are just around the corner – and no real attempt to explain how, without an election or referendum, the parliamentary impasse can be solved.

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It seems that the approach of most of the candidates so far is not so far from Theresa May’s: allow time to elapse and hope something turns up.

We have played this game before, to exhaustion. The merry go round of hell which has produced such paralysis has wrought much damage to our parliamentary and political institutions.

If this race is anything to go by, whoever wins, there is more to come. Those who discount no deal seem to think goodwill from their being a new prime minister will be all they need.

They will be sorely disappointed to see it count for little with the EU or with parliament when and if they take office.

New ideas are thin on the ground but one target, at least, is common: Boris Johnson. All of his opponents have him in their cross hairs.

They know he is far in front and for Michael Gove in particular, struggling to maintain his position after revelations of cocaine use as a journalist, it is imperative he changes the subject.

Perhaps that’s why Gove was quite so bellicose in his attacks on the man for whom he was (briefly) such a close ally: “Mr Johnson, whatever you do, don’t pull out. I know you have before and I know you may not believe in your heart that you can do it but the Conservative Party membership deserves a choice, so let’s have a proper race.”

This was one of many jibes against Johnson we’ve heard today. So dominant in this race has he become that he is now an enemy of all.

The personal, gloves off stuff is entertaining but ultimately of the second order. The point of this leadership contest was to dissolve the blockage at the top of government, to think things that May would have thought unthinkable, to find new approaches.

There is precious little evidence of any of it. Instead it is more of the same. From the frontrunners, at least, it is largely devoid of any engagement with reality; full of people saying things they don’t believe or they don’t mean and giving assurances they know they might not be able to honour, because they also know they must do so to be acceptable to parts of the Conservative party who do not wish to hear anything else.

In that sense, this contest is enveloped in the long shadow of Theresa May. It is a neat real-time demonstration of how we ended up in this mess in the first place.

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