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Johnson a little less sure-footed as Hunt picks up the pace

The Boris Johnson show rolled into Birmingham for the first of sixteen Tory leadership hustings, with a full-blown scandal and an unwelcome press entourage demanding answers to uncomfortable questions.

The police call-out to Mr Johnson's home after a loud altercation with his partner Carrie Symonds in the early hours of Friday morning made the front pages of all the newspapers.

Not the backdrop this would-be prime minster wanted for a very public engagement with the press and party members.

Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds
Image: Police attended the home of Mr Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds on Friday

On stage with radio presenter Iain Dale, Mr Johnson repeatedly refused to answer questions about the incident, insisting that the audience of party members didn't want to "hear about that kind of thing… I think they want to hear about my plans for the country and my party".

Mr Dale pressed on, raising the question of Mr Johnson's character and asking whether a person's private life had any bearing of their ability to be prime minister. The crowd jeered, with some shouting "no".

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For Mr Johnson's colourful character and chaotic private life is baked into the brand. It is already priced in.

It is true that one couple in the audience that I chatted with after did want answers about that row – "It's a question of morals" – but in the main, the party membership didn't think it was their business.

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But, perhaps shaken by the intense media scrutiny around his relationship, this political rock star seemed a little less sure-footed with his audience on Saturday.

The crowd offered Mr Johnson affection rather than adulation. The scrutiny was intense and the questions difficult.

Jeremy Hunt has urged Conservative members not to elect a populist
Hunt makes his pitch to be Prime Minister

Boris Johnson dodges girlfriend row as Jeremy Hunt warns against 'populist' choice

Boris Johnson dodges girlfriend row as Jeremy Hunt warns against 'populist' choice

Debate host Iain Dale receives boos from the audience as he repeatedly questions Mr Johnson about the alleged altercation

On Brexit, he scored well – the party membership delighted by this promise to leave the EU on 31 October.

But he was pulled up on his "f*** business" remarks, and pointedly asked about how he'd bring ethnic minorities into the party – his remarks on veiled Muslim women looking like letterboxes and robbers the elephant in the room.

One party member told him he'd divided the country and the party as he wondered aloud how on earth Mr Johnson was going to unify Britain.

I didn't get the sense Mr Johnson was enjoying it: at one point he even asked Mr Dale how long he had to go. "Superb," he said when told that it was under 10 minutes.

This is a politician used to unadulterated approval and affection from party members.

On Saturday they gave him a far rougher ride. He was awarded big applause and a partial standing ovation at the end. But this was not vintage Johnson when it came to his rapport with his party.

An opportunity then for Jeremy Hunt. The quieter, continuity cabinet candidate, used the hustings to try to convince the membership that he would deliver Brexit despite being a Remainer.

This will undoubtedly be his Achilles' heel during the contest. You can't out-Brexit Mr Johnson. What Mr Hunt tried to do instead was to present himself as the sensible choice as he offered an oblique critique of his political rival warning the audience that "catastrophe awaits" if they send the wrong person to Brussels to negotiate.

Jeremy Hunt
Image: Jeremy Hunt started off the competition as an also-ran
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Johnson quizzed over police visit

"If we send them wrong person, there's going to be no negotiations, no trust, no deal, and if parliament stops that, maybe no Brexit. Send the right person and there's a deal to be done," he said.

The clear underdog, his only hope is to win over the heads if not the hearts of the party membership.

It is a huge – perhaps impossible – uphill task. But Mr Johnson has started the final stages of the race rattled. His private life is back in the headlines when he needs it least and is about to face acute scrutiny, with fifteen more hustings with party members over the next month. A glimmer of hope for Mr Hunt.

He started the run-off as an also-ran. He'll leave Birmingham with a bit more of a spring in his step.

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