Northern Ireland

Analysis: Tory hustings show neither leadership candidate is worthy of becoming prime minister

Tory leadership contenders Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Pictures by Hugh Russell
Tory leadership contenders Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Pictures by Hugh Russell Tory leadership contenders Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Pictures by Hugh Russell

THE Tory leadership hustings in Belfast yesterday was described by a number of commentators beforehand as a box-ticking exercise.

Which exact box or boxes they had in mind wasn't specified but after witnessing the lunchtime proceedings it's likely the pen stroke corresponded with those marked blandness and platitudinous.

The operational note issued to some members of the media by Conservative Campaign HQ on Tuesday had promised a potentially livelier affair, billing Radio Ulster's sometime shock-jock Stephen Nolan as the event host.

It turned out to be the 'biggest no show in the country', however, with the moderator's honours falling instead, without explanation, to the much more reserved and decidedly less interrogational Tory party chairman Andrew Stephenson.

Rather than being the head-to-head the audience and assembled media had hoped for, they were instead treated to opening monologues from each of the candidates, after which the two contenders separately fielded 15 minutes of questions, apparently selected randomly, from some of the 250-odd party members in the room – roughly half the total membership in Northern Ireland. Notably, the competing pair were never on stage at the same time.

Liz Truss told us how she'd been raised in Paisley in Scotland and Leeds in Yorkshire, and was therefore a "child of the union". The room applauded accordingly when reminded that the party was officially called the Conservative and Unionist Party, while the foreign secretary was keen to stress that she'd visited the north a number of times – seemingly a slight on rival Rishi Sunak, who had apparently crossed the Irish Sea for the first time to attend the Culloden Hotel hustings.

The bookies' favourite to replace Boris Johnson continued with her hardline on the protocol, assuring the audience that there would be no compromise with the EU on the European Court of Justice and free-flowing east-west trade, and that she would be "sorting out the regulatory system".

There was little in the foreign secretary's presentation to justify her status as number one contender – her body language was stilted, her responses scripted and her policy pledges uninspiring.

The comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, whatever your opinion of the late Tory leader, appear contrived and some way off the mark.

The former chancellor on the other hand came across comparatively more assured and articulate.

Yet his chances of being the first person of colour to be UK prime minister appear to be diminishing by the day, much to the bewilderment of observers.

He addressed the audience somewhat erroneously as "fellow Britons", though the number of questions subsequently delivered in Anglicised accents by people claiming to be from east Belfast partially justified the appellation.

There does appear to be some genuine difference in the approach of the two candidates, but both would claim theirs is true conservatism.

Liz Truss is all about cracking down on immigration and cutting taxes, while her rival veers more to the 'one nation' approach that believes in helping the most vulnerable and "turbo charging the economy". Mr Sunak also appears more conciliatory on the protocol, advocating negotiation over agitation.

While the two leadership hopefuls can hardly be characterised as lively or colourful, the same could not be said of the audience, many of whom appear to enjoy their status as eccentrics.

Glancing around the room there was no shortage of bouffant hairstyles, deep tans and flamboyantly-coloured attire – and that was just the men.

Speaking to members of the audience afterwards, it appeared the hustings had done little to change anybody's mind but it probably convinced any neutrals present that neither candidate is worthy of becoming prime minister.