Boris Johnson finally emerged from his bunker to face Tory rivals in a bad-tempered TV debate tonight – after Rory Stewart’s surge in the latest vote by MPs set the battle on fire.
The former foreign secretary came under fire from all sides as he lined up alongside Mr Stewart, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid for the hour-long session at the BBC studios in London.
He immediately set out his stall on Brexit, insisting the UK must leave the EU by Halloween. Asked whether he could guarantee the country will be out by the deadline, he said: ‘We must come out in the 31st October because otherwise I am afraid we face a catastrophic loss of confidence in politics.
‘We have already kicked the can down the road twice and I think the British people are getting thoroughly fed up.’
But the exchanges quickly descended into furious squabbling, as Mr Hunt and Mr Gove insisted they were ready to push the schedule back if a ‘few more days’ were needed to finalise a deal with the EU.
Mr Stewart accused his colleagues of ‘staring at the wall’ rather than walking through the ‘door’ – which was to support the deal Mrs May had already thrashed out over two years. ‘Let’s get on with it,’ he said, adding that No Deal was ‘not possible’.
In a stinging barb, Mr Hunt told his fellow Cabinet member that made him the ‘no Brexit’ candidate.
Under intense attack from all his rivals, Mr Johnson appeared to back off his plans to hand a £10billion tax cut to higher earners. He said the idea would start a ‘debate’ and be part of a wider ‘package’.
The showdown comes after Mr Johnson cemented his status as the front runner, scooping up 126 votes in the second round.
However, his tally was only up 12 on the week before – sparking speculation that some MPs might be backing him in public but taking advantage of the secret ballot to help Mr Stewart’s cause.
Emily Maitlis is presenting the BBC special tonight, but the format set by the corporation has caused dismay. There is no live studio audience, and questions are being be posed by ‘ordinary’ voters from other studios around the country. The candidates were also seated on stools instead of behind podiums, with jibes that they resemble a boy band.
The former foreign secretary lined up alongside Mr Stewart, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid for the hour-long session at the BBC studios in London
Mr Johnson immediately set out his stall on Brexit, insisting the UK must leave the EU by Halloween. Mr Gove (right) pointed to his record as one of the leaders of Vote Leave in the 2016 referendum. ‘I started this so I’ll finish it,’ he said.
The Tory leader candidates were seated on stools instead of behind podiums for the BBC special, with jibes that they resembled a boy band
Dominic Raab was ejected from the Tory leadership contest tonight as he came bottom of the pile with just 30 votes
The debate tonight was decried as shambolic on social media, with many viewers suggesting Maitlis had lost control as the candidates talked over each other.
At one point she desperately hissed ‘ssshhh’ at them as they vied for airtime.
Mr Johnson said Brussels was sick of Brexit, and were ready to give the UK a better deal. ‘They want us out of the EU, they want this done and they don’t want a disorderly Brexit,’ he said.
Mr Javid highlighted his proposal to pump hundreds of millions of pounds into a hi-tech Irish border, to get over the issue of drawing a hard line between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Mr Javid warned that there must be a ‘hard deadline’ for Brexit, saying that flexibility had been a problem under Theresa May. ‘So far we have failed. We have failed to act on those instructions. We have got to learn from our mistakes,’ he said.
‘If you don’t have a deadline you do not concentrate minds… we have to set a date.’
Under-fire Boris backs off call for £10bn tax cuts for the wealthy
Boris Johnson tonight appeared to back off his call for £10billion of tax cuts for the wealthy as he came under intense fire from Tory rivals.
The former foreign secretary had proposed raising the higher rate threshold from £50,000 to £80,000.
But he was roundly criticised by the other candidates, with Michael Gove saying: ‘I went into politics to help the very poorest in society.’
A clearly taken aback Mr Johnson then conceded that the idea would be up for ‘debate’ and could form part of a wider ‘package’.
Mr Gove pointed to his record as one of the leaders of Vote Leave in the 2016 referendum. ‘I started this so I’ll finish it,’ he said.
But Mr Stewart raged that it was not possible to get No Deal through parliament, saying: ‘Every single one of these people is not saying how they will do it.’
He added that he would rule out leaving without a deal altogether. ‘In the end, we’re in a room with a door and the door is called Parliament, and I am the only person here trying to find the key to the door. ‘Everybody else is staring at the wall shouting ‘believe in Britain’,’ he said.
Earlier, after nearly doubling his support to 37, Mr Stewart admitted he had no idea who was in his camp, saying he had been ‘pleasantly surprised’.
‘Many of these MPs didn’t tell me they were going to vote for me, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised,’ he told reporters outside the BBC studios.
Dominic Raab was humiliatingly evicted from the contest with just 30 votes, while Mr Javid sneaked home with 33. The Home Secretary said he would fight on, but there was immediately speculation he might withdraw.
Mr Hunt came second again with 46, but has failed to make much headway since last Tuesday, adding just three votes. Michael Gove also clung on in the race with 41, but again did not make significant progress from the previous 38.
A strong performance in the debate could open the door for Mr Stewart to overhaul Mr Hunt and finish in the top two as this phase of the contest wraps up on Thursday.
Mr Johnson’s showing in the vote was also lower than some had forecast, increasing by just 12 over the past week, despite a series of high-profile endorsements. There have been claims some One Nation Tories are backing him in public, but voted for Mr Stewart in the secret ballot.
Mr Stewart’s spokeswoman said: ‘This is a fantastic result for Rory – almost doubling his vote – with the biggest increase of all the candidates.
‘This shows his momentum is continuing to build. He can now go all the way to the final 2, giving the clear choice that members deserve.’
Justice Secretary David Gauke, a Rory backer, told Sky News: ‘Rory will run a positive campaign and make the case of why he should be PM. I think it is really important that we have a proper debate.’
Meanwhile, Mr Hunt tried to put a brave face on his stalled support, describing it as a ‘solid result’.
‘It shows a steady step forward, which is exactly what we were expecting. It confirms that Jeremy is the best placed candidate to take on Boris,’ a spokesman said.
Mr Hunt was also taking part in the debate tonight after failing to make substantial gains in the second Tory ballot