Boris Johnson has failed to guarantee that he would bring down immigration levels if he is the next prime minister as he clashed with Jeremy Hunt and the race for Number 10 entered its final phase.
Mr Johnson was asked directly if net migration would fall if he takes over from Theresa May as he took part in the last head-to-head showdown of the Tory leadership campaign and he said he would not get into a ‘numbers game’.
But Mr Hunt said if he wins the keys to Number 10 that the number of people coming to the UK would be brought down.
Mr Johnson said: ‘I am not going to get into some numbers game. We will have control. That is what people voted for.’
Mr Hunt struck a different position as he sought to bolster his standing with Eurosceptic Tories by referring to the result of the 2016 EU referendum.
He said: ‘I actually agree with Boris about taking back control. But people also voted with the expectation that overall levels of net migration would come down.’
Meanwhile, Mr Hunt faced embarrassment as he promised Mr Johnson a role in his Cabinet should he become PM but the front runner would not offer the same guarantee.
Mr Hunt said Mr Johnson would be given a ‘very senior role’ in his government if he takes over from Mrs May.
But a sheepish Mr Johnson would only go so far as saying that he had the ‘highest regard for Jeremy Hunt’.
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are clashing for the final time tonight as they try to win the battle for Number 10
Mr Johnson insisted he was the right person to ‘unleash’ on the Brexit impasse as criticised Mr Hunt for being wiling to delay Brexit
Johnson and Hunt condemn Trump over ‘go back home’ tweets
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have both criticised Donald Trump after he told four ethnic minority congresswomen to ‘go back to where they came from’ despite three of them being born in the US.
However, both Tory leadership contenders refused to be drawn on whether they believed the remarks made by the US President were ‘racist’.
The two men were asked if they agreed with Theresa May who had earlier today called the comments ‘completely unacceptable’ as they appeared at the final head-to-head showdown of the Tory leadership campaign this evening.
Mr Hunt replied: ‘Yes, I do. I have three half Chinese children and if anyone… ever said to them “go back to China” I would be utterly appalled.
‘I would say something else. It is totally un-British to do that.’
Mr Johnson initially struck a more diplomatic tone at the event hosted by The Sun and TalkRadio as he described the UK’s relationship with the US as ‘incredibly important’.
But he then went further as he said: ‘You simply cannot use that kind of language about sending people back to where they came from.
‘That went out decades and decades ago… I agree with the Prime Minister. I think it was totally unacceptable.’
Asked directly if he believed the remarks made by Mr Trump to be ‘racist’, Mr Johnson replied: ‘You can take from what I said what I think about President Trump’s words.’
Mr Hunt echoed a similar sentiment as he said using that word to describe the remarks would not ‘help the situation’ but added they were ‘totally offensive’.
The exchanges came as the pair took part in ‘The Final Showdown’, hosted by The Sun and TalkRadio, as they both made last ditch attempts at persuading Conservative members to support their candidacy.
They clashed repeatedly on their respective Brexit blueprints as Mr Johnson said he would not sign off on holding a snap general election before the UK has left the EU.
Asked to choose between a second referendum and a general election, Mr Hunt said ‘neither’ while Mr Johnson said ‘I refuse to choose’.
Mr Johnson said he would ‘absolutely’ not call a snap poll before Brexit as he described going to the country early as the ‘height of folly’.
But Mr Hunt said ‘if you get this wrong you will end up in an election’ before Brexit takes place and the UK would then get Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10 ‘the one person who will never ever deliver Brexit’.
The Foreign Secretary also claimed Mr Johnson was ‘guaranteeing something that he knows’ he cannot necessarily deliver over his ‘do or die’ pledge to take Britain out of the EU on October 31.
But Mr Johnson hit back and demanded to know ‘how many days’ his rival would be willing to delay Brexit by as he said: ‘Is that three days? Six days? Christmas? Which Christmas is it?’
Mr Johnson also attacked the Labour leader as he insisted he was the best placed candidate to tackle the ‘job destroying lunacy’ of Mr Corbyn as he then claimed to be the ‘right person to unleash’ on the Brexit impasse.
Both men were asked whether they believed Mr Corbyn was ‘personally’ anti-Semitic as Labour continues to wrestle with the fallout from a bombshell Panorama documentary about the party’s handling of allegations of racial hatred of Jews.
Mr Hunt said ‘unfortunately he may be’ while Mr Johnson said that by failing to tackle the issue within the Labour Party Mr Corbyn may be ‘culpable of that vice’.
The two leadership challengers were also grilled about who could be in their respective top teams.
Both guaranteed that at least one of the four great offices of state would be filled by a female minister.
Mr Hunt then joked that he would make Mr Johnson his chancellor as the former foreign secretary refused to say whether his partner Carrie Symonds would live with him at Number 10.
Mr Hunt said: ‘He will be at Number 11 and I will be at Number 10.’
A bemused Mr Johnson replied: ‘Am I being offered the post of chancellor?’
Pushed to clarify later whether they would give each other a Cabinet job, Mr Johnson said he had the ‘highest regard for Jeremy Hunt’ but would not guarantee a position.
But Mr Hunt was unequivocal as he said ‘you will have a very very senior role’.
The latest comments came after Mr Hunt insisted that the race for Number 10 was not over despite Mr Johnson now being viewed as the prohibitive favourite to succeed Mrs May.
The former foreign secretary is thought to be well ahead of his rival in the contest for votes from Conservative Party members with the new PM due to be installed on July 24.
Such is the strength of belief in Mr Johnson winning the battle that Tory heavyweights are now locked in a furious fight for jobs in the former mayor of London’s future Cabinet.
Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock and Liz Truss are all already jockeying for prominent posts in the new administration.
Meanwhile, there are also claims that Mr Johnson has now turned his attention to what he will do in his first 100 days in power.
He is thought to be planning an early trip to the US to try to thrash out a post-Brexit trade deal with Donald Trump.
But a defiant Mr Hunt, who spent the day in Brussels holding talks with EU counterparts on the Iran crisis before returning to London for tonight’s debate, insisted the result was still up for grabs.
‘Getting back to the UK and reading a raft of stories that assume Boris will be next PM,’ he tweeted.
‘Don’t! We have been getting huge numbers of switchers, won both the ITV debate and Neil interview and this all depends on how far Boris was ahead at start which no one knows… ‘
Mr Hunt will be hoping that tonight’s head-to-head, which is the second and final showdown between the pair, will have swung the votes of activists.
Polls show it is Mr Johnson who is the choice of an overwhelming majority of the Tory grassroots.
Mr Johnson refused to guarantee that he would lower immigration to the UK if he becomes PM
However, supporters of Mr Hunt insist he has been gaining ground with an increasingly aggressive campaign – including questioning Mr Johnson’s character and branding him a ‘coward’.
The last encounter between the two men on ITV last week was a spiky affair dominated by the fallout from the leak of the diplomatic dispatches of Britain’s ambassador to the US Sir Kim Darroch criticising Mr Trump’s White House as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘inept’.
The following day Sir Kim resigned amid accusations that Mr Johnson’s lack of support for him in the debate – in contrast to Mr Hunt’s strong backing – had made his position impossible.
The former foreign secretary was angrily denounced by MPs and senior civil servants with claims he had effectively thrown Sir Kim ‘under the bus’.
It had been thought that most of the ballot papers from the party’s 180,000 grassroots members would have been returned by this stage of the contest.
However, votes have been coming in more slowly than expected, suggesting many members have been keen to see how the two candidates perform in the campaign before making up their minds.
A defiant Mr Hunt, who has spent the day in Brussels holding talks with EU counterparts on the Iran crisis, insisted the result was still up for grabs
If he succeeds in gaining the keys to Number 10, one of Mr Johnson’s first acts is expected to be an attempt to reset relations with Mr Trump after he responded to the leaked cables with a furious tirade against Sir Kim and Mrs May.
The Tory front runner is planning to make an early trip to the US to start laying the groundwork for a post-Brexit trade deal.
However, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox this morning dismissed suggestions that a Johnson-led government would be able to strike a deal with Washington as soon as the UK leaves the EU on October 31.
Dr Fox, who is supporting Mr Hunt for the Tory leadership, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We can’t negotiate anything with the US until after we have left the European Union. It would be in breach of European law for us to do that.’
Mr Hunt today made clear that he believed Sir Kim’s successor in Washington should be a career diplomat rather than a political appointee.
His comments came amid speculation that Mr Johnson could seek to appoint a Brexiteer to the post in the hope that it would appeal to Mr Trump, who has long made plain his support for the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU.