Only time will tell on Tory leadership promises at York hustings

The Tory leadership contest finally pitched up in Yorkshire and the Humber yesterday and to mark the occasion, Boris Johnson spent the afternoon shearing sheep.

Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson. PICS: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson. PICS: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Ahead of the hustings, the frontrunner was delighting photographers – if not the animals themselves – at a North Yorkshire farm by throwing himself into the process with characteristic vigour.

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The sheep in question, he recounted, had looked up at him with despair in its eyes prompting the thought that Britain’s voters would feel the same if Jeremy Corbyn became the Prime Minister.

In fact, during the evening much of what was said by the ex-Mayor of London drew positive noises, and had the feeling at times of an after dinner speech rather than a political set-piece.

His rival Jeremy Hunt could not match Mr Johnson for frivolity and had no funny anecdotes to begin his segment with, having spent the day door-knocking with members in Surrey with not a set of shears in sight.

Instead he began with a slightly dispassionate but comprehensive list of his priorities – including unleashing entrepreneurship, investing in education and social care and delivering Brexit.

And throughout the two-hour hustings, which consisted of speeches and interviews but no head-to-head debate, it was Mr Johnson that gained the laughs and Mr Hunt who presented a more serious demeanour.

On the substance, the contenders were grilled on the many promises they have made during the leadership campaign.

But top of the agenda for those in the room was the question of whether the North would get a fair deal under the next Tory Prime Minister.

Mr Johnson was full of the usual excitable rhetoric – promising to “unite the country” and to give “real meaning and content” to the Northern Powerhouse.

On that “real meaning and content,” however, there was a distinct lack of detail – a criticism that has been levelled at Mr Johnson over the last few weeks, and indeed, during his political career more generally.

Mr Hunt, on the other hand, had a more comprehensive vision which put supporting businesses and improving educational standards at the heart of reinvigorating the region.

The members in the packed room also wanted to hear about social care, knife crime, high streets and many other issues, but the discourse often came back, of course, to Brexit.

And the pair happily reiterated the positions that have we have become more than accustomed to during the contest.

Mr Johnson told the audience that being “positive” was the way to deliver on the EU referendum result.

On the suggestion that Parliament should be suspended – or ‘prorogued’ – to ensure that Britain leaves the bloc on October 31 even against the will of MPs, Mr Johnson said he hoped it would not come to that – despite clear support in the room.

Setting out his stance, Mr Hunt was more pessimistic or realistic, depending on your viewpoint.

He said he was determined to get an agreement from Brussels and warned that a no-deal Brexit would require a huge injection of Government cash, which would take funds from other vital policy areas, such as care for the elderly.

These exchanges, though entertaining at times for those in the room, are a serious business as they will dictate the future of the country.

And that process will properly begin this weekend as Conservative members all over the country receive their ballots and make their choice. Based on the reception in York, and the polls,

Mr Johnson is almost certain to enter Number 10 in less than three weeks’ time.

Whether the plethora of earnest promises and ambitious spending pledges that have been made during the race will ever materialise – only time will tell.