Rory Stewart paved the way for a ‘dream ticket’ with Tory rival Michael Gove today – but demanded he be the contender to take on Boris Johnson.
The International Development Secretary revealed he is in talks with Mr Gove about ‘combining forces’, saying he was determined the front runner should face a ‘test’ in the head-to-head.
Pooling their support could potentially wreck the chances of Jeremy Hunt, who is currently in second place.
But there is set to be a major clash over who should the candidate should be to go forward to the next round. Mr Gove secured four votes more than Mr Stewart in the ballot last night, and there is no sign he is ready to make way. Mr Stewart also admitted he ‘struggled’ in a BBC TV debate last night, at one point bizarrely ripping his tie off.
The bold move came as tension builds in the Tory leadership battle, with Mr Johnson adding more MPs to his huge list of 126 supporters after Brexiteer Dominic Raab was knocked out yesterday.
Mr Raab had 30 votes, and his close ally Nadhim Zahawi and Andrea Jenkyns are among those declaring for Mr Johnson as he moves towards a seemingly inevitable victory.
But the battle for second place is still raging, with Conservative MPs due to cast ballots again this evening as they whittle down the field of candidates.
Earlier, Mr Hunt swiped that he has no idea what Mr Johnson ‘believes’ on Brexit today – after the front runner tightened his grip on Downing Street.
The Foreign Secretary delivered a stinging assault on Mr Johnson for lacking ‘judgement’ – suggesting he had not ‘thought through’ his position.
Mr Stewart and Sajid Javid are both trying to avoid being the next to be kicked out.
Rory Stewart (pictured being interviewed on Sky News today) revealed he is in talks with Michael Gove about ‘combining forces’, saying he was determined the front runner should face a ‘test’ in the head-to-head
Mr Gove secured four votes more than Mr Stewart in the ballot last night, and there is no sign he is ready to make way
Boris Johnson was accosted by a pack of waiting journalists – and a chicken – as he left his London home this morning
The BBC TV debate quickly descended into furious squabbling, with presenter Emily Maitlis struggling to keep control
Interviewed on Sky News today, Mr Stewart said: ‘I feel it would be great to get into that final two, to persuade Sajid and Michael and Jeremy to join forces with me so that we can make sensible, reasonable arguments to keep our party together and keep our country together.’
Asked if he was ready to quit and back someone else, Mr Stewart said: ‘This is the problem. It is always the problem of politician’s egos.
‘I would say to them that I am massively out polling them with all the key target groups we need, with 18 to 45 year-olds, with Scotland, with London, and we have to think about how to win an election.’
Sources on Mr Stewart’s campaign said: ‘Any team that gets combined, Rory wants to lead it.’
Mr Johnson’s team is breathing a sigh of relief after he emerged relatively unscathed from the TV debate last night, despite being hammered over his Iran blunder, Muslim veil jibes and tax cuts for the wealthy.
The former foreign secretary came under fire from all sides as he lined up alongside second-placed Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Mr Stewart and Mr Javid Javid for the hour-long session at the BBC studios in London.
But no clear winner emerged, with viewers enraged at the way the candidates dodged questions, as well as the bizarre format set by the corporation.
Mr Johnson took the opportunity to set out his stall on Brexit, insisting the UK must leave the EU by the end of October.
‘We must come out on the 31st October because otherwise I am afraid we face a catastrophic loss of confidence in politics,’ he said.
‘We have already kicked the can down the road twice and I think the British people are getting thoroughly fed up.’
He did fail to raise his hand when presenter Emily Maitlis asked the hopefuls to signal whether they would guarantee Brexit by October 31 – although aides insisted his position was clear.
Mr Hunt tried to capitalise on the apparent wavering today, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Well, I am not entirely sure what he believes on this, having listened to him last night.
‘You have to think these things through because prime ministers have to make these judgments.’
Mr Hunt said he was best placed to cut a deal with Brussels on Brexit, implying that Mr Johnson would not be ‘trusted’ by Brussels.
‘We need a negotiator,’ he said. ‘A negotiator has to have three qualities. The first is it has to be someone the other side trust, because you don’t do a deal with somebody you don’t trust.
‘Secondly, it has got to be someone who doesn’t blink.
‘And thirdly, it has got to be somebody who is prepared to walk away.
‘Now, the danger is that if we choose the wrong person now, we will have no trust, no negotiation, no deal, and possibly, if we have an election, no Brexit.’
The debate exchanges quickly descended into furious squabbling, with Maitlis struggling to keep control.
Mr Stewart, who bizarrely removed his tie as the row heated up, 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’.
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 merely start a ‘debate’ and be part of a wider ‘package’.
He was also challenged on his handling of the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – the British mother held prisoner in Iran – while foreign secretary, as well as previous remarks comparing Muslim women in veils to ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letter boxes’. Mr Johnson said he was sorry if anything he had written over ’25-30 years when I was a journalist’ had caused offence.
And he blustered when a questioner demanded to know whether he would fulfil his previous vow to ‘lie down in front of bulldozers’ to stop Heathrow airport expansion going ahead.
Mr Stewart admitted after the debate that he had ‘struggled’, saying he found the format ‘frustrating’ and felt like they were in an ‘alternate reality’. He is now scrambling to hold on to the momentum he had built up by surging from just 19 votes in the first round to 37 in the second.
By contrast, Mr Javid was seen as putting on a strong performance, and toughened his stance on Brexit. He will be hoping to pick up some support from the 30 MPs who had supported Mr Raab.
Boris Johnson (pictured during the TV debate last night) is adding more MPs to his huge list of 126 supporters after Dominic Raab was knocked out of Tory leadership the contest yesterday
Sajid Javid (left) put in a strong performance as he desperately fights to keep his campaign for No10 on track. But Mr Stewart (right) seemed to be slightly disengaged at times despite his surge in the second ballot
Mr Raab (pictured at Parliament this week) had 30 votes, and his close ally Nadhim Zahawi and Andrea Jenkyns are among those declaring for Mr Johnson as he moves towards a seemingly inevitable victory