“It’s gone on for too long,” the MP said as we came down the side of the Midland Hotel in Manchester in search of the hustings. “I can’t wait for it to be over.”
To our right, we saw a small but vociferous crowd, bearing placards with such cheery messages as “Tories Out”, “Fuck the Tories” and “End the racist hostile environment”. That must be the place we were looking for.
Inside, the atmosphere was civil, 1400 Conservatives representing good-humoured, public-spirited England in all its unnewsworthy glory.
“Well it has to be done,” Iftikhar Awan, from Altrincham and West Sale, said of the present phase of the leadership race. “It’s for the members, and I think it’s necessary – it does take that time to get round the country.
“Ideally one would want to speed up the process, but it’s logistically impossible. I haven’t decided yet.”
Had he wanted Boris Johnson to go? “No. I think he had done a very good job with Brexit. I’m a Brexiteer. And with the vaccination programme. Obviously mistakes were made…”
ConHome: “Sorry, I’m stopping you get a good seat.”
Awan, in a mild tone: “Yes, you are.”
Quite a few people said they were still undecided, and remarked that the race had gone on for rather a long time. The only empty seats in the Manchester Exchange were those set aside for the press. We might have been about to experience a very dull evening.
And yet the evening was not dull. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have been touring the country with their two-person show for some time now, have got better at delivering their lines, and have developed a closer rapport with their audience.
Alastair Stewart, who presented the event for GB News, managed the difficult feat of being in control without being egotistical. The questions from the audience were short and to the point without being rancorous.
Conservatives in Manchester, Lancashire and further afield have enjoyed taking many seats from Labour and the Liberal Democrats since 2010, want to go on being successful, but know things could easily go wrong.
Sunak has made the role of underdog his own. He knows what it is like to be written off by the media, his ability to reach Conservative members disregarded.
Of the Sky News debate he said in Manchester, “Kay Burley was very upset at the end that I had done so well.”
Many Conservative members know that feeling of being disregarded, for they live in areas still dominated at local level by Labour.
Truss has become increasingly good at presenting herself as the perky, indomitable optimist, the plucky outsider who will never let the gloomsters get her down and insists at frequent intervals that “our best days are ahead of us”.
She showed she too could take a swipe at the mainstream media, telling Stewart of GB News at one point: “It’s not the BBC, you know, you actually get your facts right.”
Sunak is the kind of underdog who will only let himself be pushed so far. When asked by Stewart if he would over-rule the parole board, he replied that we believe in giving criminals a second chance, many of us may even believe in giving them a third chance, but “we don’t believe in giving them a 19th chance”.
He reckons not just that “government can’t do everything” but that “government shouldn’t do everything”.
A mining engineer from Halifax assured us that a mile and a half beneath our feet lay “a secure supply of cheap, abundant, readily available energy”, a “bonanza” of natural gas: “It’s ours. Develop it.”
Truss: “I agree.” But she added that fracking must bring “very clear benefits to the local community”.
She also wanted “more grammar schools in every area”, which brought applause. Each candidate could depend on a band of dedicated supporters who waved the appropriate placards.
A line of three young people in tee-shirts bearing the message “IN LIZ WE TRUSS” applauded at all the right moments, and seemed quite relaxed, even faintly self-mocking, as they did so.
A civil servant who chairs his local Conservative association remarked after the show that he will be supporting Sunak: “Liz Truss has so far said I’m lazy, I have too many holidays and I’m an anti-semite.”
Melanie Lee, a parish councillor in the village of Rainford, in the still solidly Labour constituency of St Helen’s North, declared: “I am the undecided.”
She added that she was swinging more towards Sunak. She is angry that the local Labour council wants to allow development on greenfield sites in Rainford.
But Mackenzie France, 20, a student who joined the party when he was only 15, said he had already voted for Truss, because she was “the more Conservative of the two candidates”, who wishes to cut taxes and shrink the size of the state.
People left in good spirits. Here was the Tory tribe in benevolent and thoughtful mood, two characteristics which are seldom reported, for they are virtually impossible to dramatise.