Boris Johnson was humiliatingly ’empty chaired’ in the first Tory leadership TV debate tonight – as he became the only candidate to refuse to take part.
Channel 4 deliberately put a podium out for Mr Johnson alongside those for his five rivals, even though he had already said he would not be there.
Presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy jibed that there was still time for Mr Johnson to ‘get a taxi from North London’ to the studios.
The public shaming came as the other hopefuls slammed the front runner for his ‘submarine’ campaign strategy, with Rory Stewart jibing that no-one ‘knows what he believes’.
The rivals crossed swords early on in the debate, with Aid Secretary Mr Stewart demanding to know how Brexiteers planned to take the UK out of the EU by the end of October without approval from parliament.
Dominic Raab shot back that he had resigned from the Cabinet ‘on principle’ and politicians had to keep their word. ‘I’m the only one who can be trusted to get us out by the end of October,’ he said, repeating his vow to suspend the Commons if necessary to stop it blocking No Deal.
Meanwhile, Michael Gove – whose campaign has been hit by his admission of cocaine use – painted himself as the true Brexiteer in the contest. ‘I put everything on the line, friendships and family, to deliver it,’ he said.
Jeremy Hunt, who came a distant second behind Mr Johnson in the first MP ballot last week, tried to burnish his credentials by launching a stinging attack on Jeremy Corbyn, saying it was of paramount importance to stop him taking power.
Presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy jibed that there was still time for Mr Johnson to ‘get a taxi from North London’ to the studios for the Channel 4 Tory leadership debate tonight
The other five candidates – Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab and Rory Stewart – all turned up for the TV debate tonight
Mr Johnson fuelled rumours of an early ballot by telling a hustings event he would ‘get Brexit done and get ready for an election. He is pictured arriving at the event in London yesterday
The battle for the keys to No10 is turning nasty as contenders desperately struggle to overhaul Mr Johnson’s commanding lead. They are scrambling to pick up votes from those already eliminated – with Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who had 20 supporters, yet to decide who to back.
Mr Johnson was criticised yesterday for bustling into a hustings event in London without taking questions from journalists – and sneaking out the back door afterwards.
By contrast his rivals stopped to talk to reporters.
Although Mr Johnson has snubbed the 90-minute Channel 4 programme tonight, he has suggested he will join a BBC showdown on Tuesday, after the next round of voting by MPs.
As the Tory leadership combat moved into a frenetic new phase:
- Former chancellor Ken Clarke said he was ready to vote no confidence in any ‘idiot’ who made a bid to take the UK out of the EU without approval from Parliament;
- Allies of Theresa May have suggested once she quits No10 she will join forces with pro-Remain ministers such as Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd to avoid No Deal;
- Senior Eurosceptics insisted the Conservatives would be ‘over’ and they would defect to the Brexit Party unless the leadership front runner follows through on his vow to leave by Halloween;
- Tory rival Dominic Raab hit out at would-be PMs who are going ‘weak at the knees’ about pushing through Brexit – warning the party will be ‘toast’ unless it happens by October;
- Nigel Farage sought to exploit Tory splits by warning Mr Johnson ‘will not deliver on his promises’, adding: ‘Tory defectors would be welcome in the Brexit Party’.
A clearly infuriated Mr Stewart stepped up his attack on the former foreign secretary on the Marr Show this morning.
‘How is Boris going to deliver Brexit? How?’ the Aid Secretary said.
‘I don’t even know what he believes. He won’t talk to me, he won’t talk to you, he won’t talk to the public.
‘We want to know what he believes. We want him to sit at this debate tonight and tell us.’
Mr Stewart also tried to drawn a line under confusion over whether he would serve in the Cabinet if Mr Johnson becomes leader.
‘I wouldn’t serve in a Boris Cabinet,’ he said.
Mr Johnson has put the Tories in an election war footing – as a poll today found voters believe he can win back Eurosceptics and defeat Corbyn.
The leadership favourite fuelled rumours of an early ballot by telling a hustings event he would ‘get Brexit done and get ready for an election’.
The dramatic vow yesterday came as a survey found 47 per cent of the public think he can see off Labour and Nigel Farage – while just 22 per cent think he would lose.
His ratings are way ahead of other leadership contenders such as Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove.
However, in a worrying sign for Mr Johnson’s supporters, nearly six in 10 said he was not the kind of man they would buy a used car from.
The scale of the challenge he faces was also underlined with the YouGov research showing that overall the Brexit Party is still leading on 24 per cent – three points ahead of both the Conservatives and Labour.
A YouGov poll found 47 per cent of the public think Boris Johnson can defeat Labour and Nigel Farage – while just 22 per cent think he would lose
Theresa May (pictured at church in Maidenhead with husband Philip today) is said to have backed Rory Stewart in the first round of the Tory leadership battle
If replicated at a general election the finding would likely put Mr Farage in No10, although the ratings for the Lib Dems and other parties have yet to be published.
Mr Farage told MailOnline today: ‘It would appear that Mr Johnson wants a head to head fight. If that’s what he wants, he’s going to get it.’
Mr Hunt has said he believes it is possible to negotiate a new deal with the EU that would do away with the need for an Irish border backstop.
‘When you talk to European leaders as I do they want to solve this problem,’ he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.
‘They say that if they were approached by a British prime minister, someone they were willing to deal with, who had ideas how to solve the Northern Irish border, they would be willing to re-negotiate the package.
‘They are prepared to look at whether you could get much more detail onto the future relationship – potentially that could be legally-binding, let’s see – so that you don’t need a backstop.
‘I would never pretend that this is going to be easy but nor is it impossible.’ Mr Hunt said it could even be done by the deadline of October 31, but added that it would be a mistake to commit to leaving the EU by that date.
‘I am not committing to an October 31 hard-stop at any costs. If you do make that guarantee and you go with the wrong approach, then you are committing us to nothing other than a hard Brexit, a no-deal Brexit,’ he said.
Mr Johnson goes into the second week of the Tory campaign the red-hot favourite to succeed Theresa May, having racked up support from 114 MPs in the first ballot – more than his next three rivals combined.
Mr Johnson’s position received a further boost with the support of Esther McVey, who was eliminated from the contest after finishing last in the first ballot.
Writing in The Sunday Telegraph she said: ‘He has promised to deliver Brexit on October 31, deal or no deal, and has shown time and time again that he is a dynamic leader, capable of building a strong team around him that will deliver on his promises.’
Meanwhile, there was growing alarm among pro-European Tories at the prospect Mr Johnson takes Britain out of the EU on October 31, even if he has been unable to secure a new deal with Brussels.
Veteran former chancellor Ken Clarke said that in those circumstances he would vote to bring down the Government.
‘If some idiot was sailing into a No Deal Brexit I’d decide politics had finally gone mad and vote against it,’ he told The Observer.
Mrs May’s allies told the Mail on Sunday she has privately vowed to thwart any attempt by Mr Johnson to take the UK out of the EU without a deal.
The disclosure comes as senior party figures told The Mail on Sunday that Mrs May had voted for ultra-Remainer Rory Stewart in Thursday’s ballot of MPs, which led to a landslide victory for Mr Johnson.
Mrs May, who says she will stay on as an MP after she leaves Downing Street next month, has suggested she would join forces with pro-Remain Ministers such as Chancellor Philip Hammond and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd to try to stop Mr Johnson from leaving after the October 31 deadline ‘Deal or No Deal’.
‘I’m the Chumbawumba candidate!’ Gove claims he CAN revive flagging Tory leader bid despite cocaine admission saying he ‘gets knocked down but gets up again’
Michael Gove has styled himself the ‘Chumbawamba candidate’ for the Tory leadership, referencing the anarchist band’s 1997 hit which repeats the lyrics: ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down.’
The Environment Secretary certainly got knocked down last week, following his admission last Saturday – ahead of a revelation in a forthcoming biography serialised in the Mail – that he took cocaine on several occasions as a journalist in his 30s. The admission, and subsequent howls of hypocrisy, led to many discounting the prominent Leave campaigner as a potential ‘stop Boris’ candidate.
But his robust showing of 37 votes in Thursday’s first-round ballot for his party leadership – hopelessly behind Johnson but within striking distance of Jeremy Hunt in second place – suggests the combative Scot has, at least, ‘got up again’.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove outside his house in West London this morning
Mr Gove has insisted his campaign remains viable – that he is ‘the Chumbawamba candidate’
He told the Sunday Times: ‘At the beginning of last week people said I was going backwards. We put on votes in the course of the week — I’m well placed now.’
He said he had been told: ‘Michael, you are the “Comeback Kid”. You are the Chumbawamba candidate. You get knocked down, but you get up again.’
Mr Gove, who was spotted outside his home holding newspapers, has also today picked up endorsements from two further cabinet ministers: Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, and the Scottish secretary, David Mundell.
In the interview he set out his plans for housing reform, calling for a national housing fund created by issuing Brexit bonds, and the use of ‘citizens’ juries’ to ensure good design codes.
He pointed to his record at Education, Justice, and now Environment – where he has led a crusade against single-use plastics – as evidence of his ability to make things happen even in usually sclerotic departments, saying: ‘Two years on, I would say that Defra has been the most pro-active, energetic, policy-rich department in the government.’
His newfound zeal for the housebuilding programme could be a pitch for the Communities Secretary job in a Johnson government, which will need to offer bold popular policies on housing.
Boris Johnson is the runaway leader in the race but – assuming his campaign does not implode – any one of the other five candidates could still join him on the ballot of party members
Mr Gove found himself in third place after the first round of MP’s voting on Thursday
But Mr Gove continued to criticise Johnson’s vow to leave the EU on October 31 with or without a deal, saying: ‘If we are 95 per cent of the way there, and it just requires a few more days and weeks, I think it would be a mistake to say, “That’s it.”
‘It would be like if you ordered a new kitchen and you had the fridge and the dishwasher in and you hadn’t had the hob fitted and you say, “You said it was all going to be in by Friday, the hob’s not here, let’s rip it all out.” ‘
But he insisted he ‘would absolutely work with Boris in any way that he wanted to work with me’ – a noteworthy softening of his position after insisting in 2016 his former ally was not up to the top job.
Mr Gove, who was adopted as an infant, also told the paper he was considering contacting his birth mother for the first time, after his biographer shared her details with him.