TV leadership debates are helping the Tories to focus, says STEPHEN POLLARD

We won’t know until this afternoon if we will even see the most anticipated aspect of tonight’s debate – Boris Johnson against Rory Stewart – because it depends on Mr Stewart getting enough votes from his fellow MPs to stay in the fight. And it could well be that there will be more than just one contestant dropping out if others decide they have no realistic chance of making it to the final two. There has already been one debate, on Channel 4 on Sunday. It was an odd affair since Boris Johnson refused to take part. Nonetheless, we learned something important from it. Most of the arguments between the contenders are largely synthetic, designed to make what are, in reality, simply differences in personality seem like significant policy issues.

Tory leadership contenders

Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab and Rory Stewart (Image: Tim Anderson/Channel 4)

Yes, they have different tactics over Brexit. 

Dominic Raab, for example, says he’d get over the expected parliamentary opposition to leaving without a deal by proroguing parliament – ignoring it, in other words. 

No one else supports such an idea.

Among the rest, there are all sorts of promises about securing a better deal with the EU but none of them have been particularly convincing about how they would do this. 

Rory Stewart is at least open in saying he believes that Mrs May’s deal is the only realistic option but that if it was rejected again he would not contemplate leaving without a deal. 

Boris Johnson

Just the facts... Boris Johnson (Image: Daily Express)

That would mean remaining in the EU.

Brexit is, of course, the issue that dominates everything. 

The Tories are in such a mess because they didn't deliver on Mrs May's promise that we would leave the EU in March.

And the political rebirth of their nemesis, Nigel Farage, is entirely due to this broken promise.

Deliver Brexit and the Brexit Party will vanish.

Fail again and the Conservative Party will be wiped out.

Jeremy Hunt

Facts and more facts ... Jeremy Hunt (Image: Daily Express)

In that sense, Brexit is indeed the "be all and end all" subject. 

And – Rory Stewart, below, aside – there is a consensus among all the candidates that it simply has to be delivered, even if they differ over possible timings and strategies. 

But there is something else equally striking about this contest. 

Apart from Brexit, the candidates actually agree on almost everything.

That's quite a big exception of course. 

But in most other senses, Brexit isn't everything. 

Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart rules out leaving on no deal (Image: Getty)

Once Brexit is delivered – as it really must be or the Tories will be destroyed – then politics will move back to bread and butter issues.

That means the Tories will have to focus – relentlessly and with laser-like precision – on the policies that expose Jeremy Corbyn’s fraudulent promises. 

They will need to win back their lost voters and show the electorate that there are good positive reasons to vote Conservative. 

That’s been missing for years.

Jeremy Corbyn in No 10

What the Tories fear – Jeremy Corbyn in No 10 (Image: Getty)

This is why, beneath the rancour and arguments, it’s a hopeful sign that there are interesting policy ideas coming to the fore. 

Because whoever becomes prime minister will need to be more than a one-trick Brexit pony. 

On Sunday, the five contestants who took part in Channel 4’s debate spoke about issues such as education, social care, mental health, housing, climate change and knife crime.

They had their different emphases, but none of them was saying anything radically different from each other.

Michael Gove

Who is he? Who is Michael Gove? (Image: Daily Express)

Sajid Javid stressed, for example, he owes his achievements to public services. 

This kind of language is vital to dispel the Labour line that the Tories exist in an alternative universe where public services should be wiped out.

And although no longer in the race, Matt Hancock's campaign was full of ideas – and he could not have been clearer that the Tories need to tackle the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn head on.

Whoever wins could do a lot worse than make Mr Hancock deputy prime minister, with a brief to refresh policies.

Whether it’s Boris Johnson or anyone else, there are two tasks that simply have to be carried out. 

Leaving the EU, and secondly, carrying out policies that once again inspire people to vote Conservative.

Manage those and the party has a chance of stopping a Corbyn government. 

Fail, and we are all in deep trouble.

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