Both Conservative leadership candidates got a warm reception at yesterday’s hustings at the Culloden hotel outside Belfast.
But neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Hunt received a rapturous reception from the local party membership. There were moments of applause at points when either man said something that particularly resonated, but they were mostly listened to in respectful silence.
Both candidates received a range of questions of various topics.
There were approximately 150 to 200 members in the room, out of a total Tory membership in Northern Ireland put at fewer than 500 people.
Afterwards, as the members left the main reception room in the hotel, the News Letter tried to ask as many of them as possible who they thought had been the better performer during the preceding 90 minutes (not who they planned to vote for).
We managed to speak to 64 people, of whom:
• 27 thought that Jeremy Hunt had been the better candidate on stage.
• 23 said that Boris Johnson had been their favourite yesterday.
• A further 14 said that they had no sense as to who performed best.
Many of those neithers, however, said that they found it hard to choose, because they had been impressed by both. Only a couple of people said the opposite, that they had been impressed by neither man.
A small number of people on both sides of the campaign, who had either said that they were supporters of Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt, then said that despite that preference the other candidate had performed better yesterday.
“I thought Hunt was best but I am voting Boris,” said one man.
“I am a Hunt supporter but Boris spoke very well,” said another.
One couple, Adrian and Felicity Huston disagreed. “Boris was tired,” said Mrs Huston. “But Boris is the future,” said Mr Huston.
This poll was a large proportion of people present yesterday, but a smallish sample of overall NI Tories, who are themselves only a tiny fraction of UK Tories, but even so the NI branch seems mostly pro Brexit and anti backstop, so it suggests respectable support for the moderate underdog Mr Hunt.
• The Press Association also got quotes from departing delegates after the huntings, as follows:
Gary Hynds, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland, said: “It’s going to be a very tough decision, they were both very impressive, and their commitment to the party in Northern Ireland was very welcome as well.
“I thought the members will be very happy with that and people will be going home thinking a lot tonight and the days ahead in terms of who they will support. I think it is going to be closer than people maybe think.
“Boris has been the front runner from the start, but Jeremy is performing very well and certainly closing the gap and it is going to be very interesting to see who wins.”
Some were already clear in their mind about who they would vote for, including Frank Shivers of the North Down branch, who said it is “time for a “maverick”.
“I was going in there voting for Boris and I have been voting for Boris for a while, but I thought that Jeremy came across very credible, a safe pair of hands,” he said.
“But unfortunately in the times we are at, we have had a safe pair of hands with Theresa May who I thought was an excellent Prime Minister treated very badly by the EU, Westminster and parts of her own party.
“So we need a maverick, we need someone with a bit of charisma, a bit of character and someone who is going to deliver for the people of the United Kingdom.”
Angela Dickinson, from Larne, was also backing Mr Johnson.
“I thought they were both good, Jeremy is very polished and I do like a lot about what he said. But from the point of view of actually taking us over the line and getting us out of the EU simply because we have got other things to do, I thought Boris did better,” she said.
“I have known Boris for some time, I watched him as London mayor when I was in London and he was impressive there. He did things that other people basically couldn’t have done.
“The best thing about Boris is his optimism, he always thinks we can achieve things and I feel that together we can do that.”
However, Mark Hamilton, from North Down, was left less impressed by Mr Johnson.
“I went in veering towards Boris, I thought I’d be convinced because he is well known for being a good speaker, but I went in and he was just another pretty normal speaker,” he said.
“I though a lot of what he said had a lot of fluff in it, Jeremy Hunt set out a lot more clear plans in terms of the economy after Brexit - and I think he represents more the country I want to be in after Brexit.”
Margaret McVeigh, from Belfast, said she was planning to vote for Mr Hunt.
“I came with ideas about who I was going to vote for but I was prepared to change my mind if my mind could be changed by the two people speaking,” she said.
“I think today I haven’t changed my mind, I am still going to vote for Jeremy. He was the better of the two speakers today, I think he answered the questions head on, he detailed about what he was planning to do in his four points and generally responded to questions, I thought, very very well.
“I thought Boris, it was not his best effort, I lived in London for 16 years and he was a very entertaining speaker, in fact I campaigned for him when he was going for mayor of London.
“But today he was just a bit too much bluster and blag for my liking.”
Irwin Armstrong, former chair of the Conservatives in Northern Ireland, said there were striking differences in the presentations.
“We had the organised Jeremy Hunt and a much more off-the-cuff and unprepared Boris — which is probably what we would expect,” he said.
Tony Cullon, from North Down, said Mr Johnson’s “different negotiating style” could deliver a Brexit breakthrough.
“I like both candidates’ Brexit plan, both laid it out really clearly but, for me, I’ve always been a Boris fan,” he said.
“I was a Boris fan going into this and I believe personally he’s going to be the one who can deliver Brexit on the 31st of October for the United Kingdom — compared to Jeremy Hunt, I think it will be Boris who will push it over the line.”
Angus Cree, from Bangor, said he came into the event undecided.
“And I have left undecided,” he said.
“I don’t think either of them have a clear strategy on how they are going to get Brexit through because the EU won’t renegotiate and parliament say they won’t allow a no-deal. And I am worried that the Conservative Party has a pretty bleak future in a general election because they won’t be able to keep voters away from the Brexit Party.”
Rowan Wise, chairman of the Queen’s University Conservative and Unionist Society, asked Mr Johnson about his relationship with the DUP during the event.
Afterwards, he said: “I have always been a staunch supporter of the moderate wing of the Conservative Party, the One Nation Conservative brand, I think it is very important for Conservatives here in Northern Ireland to set their stall out as very different from the Democratic Unionist Party, especially on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage which I believe should be legislated for immediately at the national level.
“I believe Jeremy Hunt, while he didn’t say as much, is a much more moderate candidate and does understand the concerns of people here in Northern Ireland.”