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Britain's Next Prime Minister: Robert Peston on why the ITV debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt matters

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt will go head to head in the ITV debate. Credit: PA

Here is the Boris Johnson paradox: the Tory party appears to have made up its institutional mind that Boris Johnson will be its next leader and our prime minister.

And yet all the senior Tories I meet - ministers, MPs and especially his supporters - are bracing themselves to be disappointed and even betrayed by him.

They don’t trust him.

But they are aching for him.

One household-name, Johnson-backing, Tory Brexiter, a little the worse for wear at the Spectator’s party last week, told me “of course Boris is going to eff us; it’s what he does”.

Supporters are bracing themselves to be disappointed by Boris Johnson. Credit: PA

When he and his colleagues rationalise this contradiction, when they explain why only Johnson will do, they say either that:

  • There is no chance of negotiating a better Brexit unless the UK is being led by someone other EU leaders fear is capable of anything - which is the conceit of the Brexiter true believers.
  • Only a Brexiter like Boris Johnson can betray the Brexiter true believers of the Tory European Research Group by negotiating a soft Brexit-in-name-only and somehow soft-soap them they’ve won a magnificent victory - which is the conceit of the many Remainers in his came.
  • Only Johnson - a serial fudge merchant who wears clashing contradictory policies with a nonchalance perhaps more appropriate if his only sin was the flappiness of his shirt tail - has the “authenticity” and charisma to see off Farage and Corbyn.

All of which is to imbue Johnson with magical powers.

It is the Conservative Party at prayer rather than in pursuit of pure reason.

What chance does Jeremy Hunt have? Credit: PA

What chance does the challenger, Jeremy Hunt, have when - for example - he is accused of a grotesque gaffe and incompetence for saying he has no ideological objection to fox hunting, but Johnson is cast as a victim of nasty internal Tory politics when we’re reminded that Theresa May did not trust him enough to let him see all the sensitive security material that foreign secretaries typically receive?

This playing field is tilted.

Which is why ITV’s debate on Tuesday night matters.

My esteemed colleague and debate MC Julie Etchingham will want to extract fact and logic from Johnson and Hunt.

The debate will be hosted by Julie Etchingham. Credit: ITV

This is not to argue that Hunt would and should win if the assessment was being made by the Tory party’s brain rather than its gut.

Johnson is a formidable politician.

But a heavy burden of duty has been placed on the 160,000 Tory members who will choose their leader and our prime minister - and no ordinary PM, but a Brexit PM and therefore the most important of modern times.

So ITV’s conceit is that this tiny, powerful and self-selecting electorate will carefully watch the debate and apply as a minimum the powers of analysis they deploy when - for example - deciding who (in another celebrated ITV show) to send home from the Australian jungle.

Surely Tory members will know the rest of the world is watching and marveling at a bastardisation of our representative democracy, where the choice of PM is being made not by MPs who represent millions but by a few activists with the means and desire to pay a membership subscription.

Lustre is not being added to the reputation of our ancient parliamentary system.

As for the rest of us, the debate matters because it will be the first time we will see how our next PM copes with the kind of pressure that separates leadership grain from chaff.

We may not have a say over who is in charge, but a general election is unlikely to be far off.

  • Watch Britain's Next Prime Minister: The ITV Debate at 8pm on Tuesday 9 July on ITV or here on itv.com/news.
  • Straight after the debate, get instant analysis and reaction in a special online programme, Britain's Next Prime Minister: The ITV Debate - Unspun. Watch it here on itv.com/news or on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter