Boris Johnson was accused of being a coward by a Tory leadership rival today as a row exploded over his failure to commit to going head-to-head with rivals for the Tory leadership.
Jeremy Hunt taunted Mr Johnson, claiming that his rival had to be a ‘little bit braver’ amid anger at Mr Johnson’s ‘submarine’ strategy of avoiding scrutiny during the campaign.
It came as footage emerged of the former foreign secretary backing ‘essential’ live TV debates in a 2018 interview.
The favourite to replace Theresa May said that politicians should take part in ‘as many of them as possible’ in a September interview with Sky unearth by opponents.
He remains the only one of the six remaining candidates who has not committed to taking part in a Channel 4 event on Sunday, prompting claims he was ‘hiding away’ from the public in a bid to avoid making gaffes.
Mr Hunt jibed Mr Johnson that his hero Winston Churchill would not have shirked taking part in ‘big occasions’.
The Foreign Secretary went on the attack today in a bid to cement his status as the main challenger, pointing out that all six other candidates had signed up to TV debates on Sunday and Tuesday. He said Tory members and the country deserved to know who was going to be the next PM.
‘We can only have that debate if our frontrunner in this campaign is a little bit braver in terms of getting out into the media, engaging in debates, engaging in the TV debate,’ Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘If you want to be prime minister of the United Kingdom, you have to get out there and make your case.
‘What would Churchill say if somebody who wants to be prime minister of the United Kingdom was hiding away from the media, not taking part in these big occasions.’
Boris Johnson is now the only candidate who has not agreed to the Channel 4 debate show, fuelling accusations that he is limiting his media appearances to avoid scrutiny
Jeremy Hunt (pictured left at Parliament yesterday) came a distant second in the Tory ballot
Campaign sources said the combative comments showed the ‘underdog is getting hungry’.
The direct assault on Mr Johnson comes after he destroyed the field in the first round of the Tory leadership contest yesterday – raking in backing from 114 MPs.
The huge total – nearly three times the 43 Mr Hunt managed – means he is virtually guaranteed a spot in the final two, who will go to a ballot of party members.
In the 2018 interview, shared by MPs including Hunt supporter Amber Rudd, Mr Johnson said: ‘For all politicians the thought of a leadership debate is always a bit daunting because you think ”I might screw it up and I might say something terrible and it could go wrong for me”.
‘My feeling is that they are essential and the public does need to see interchange between their potential leaders.
‘The way for politicians to allay their anxieties about leadership debates is to have as many of them as possible, so you can make a cock-up in one and then say something sensible in the next. That’s the way to do it.’
Channel 4 News has proposed a programme on Sunday night featuring all seven remaining candidates.
The BBC is also planning a debate on Tuesday – after the second round of voting by Tory MPs, which will see at least one other candidate eliminated. ITV has proposed a head-to-head debate between the final two.
In a video released yesterday on Twitter, Michael Gove appeared to bait Mr Johnson, saying: ‘It’s all to play for. Very much looking forward to the Channel 4 and BBC debates – hope to see all the other candidates there.’
Similarly, Dominic Raab said: ‘I think the TV debates coming up are a great opportunity to test the views… we’re all talking about.’
Rory Stewart went further, saying: ‘Everybody has accepted except Boris, so again if I could please ask Boris to come forward into these debates and join us.
‘Let’s have the debates and let the public make this decision, not just the Members of Parliament.’
Dominic Raab said: ‘I think the TV debates coming up are a great opportunity to test the views… we’re all talking about’
Rory Stewart went further, saying: ‘Everybody has accepted except Boris, so again if I could please ask Boris to come forward into these debates and join us’
A source in the Sajid Javid camp said: ‘The future of the Conservative Party cannot be decided behind closed doors.
‘Everybody in the party should see this contest as an opportunity to put their ideas to the country.’
Amber Rudd, one of Jeremy Hunt’s most prominent supporters, said candidates had a ‘duty’ to take part, telling the Mail: ‘The Conservative Party needs to remember we are not just choosing our leader, we are choosing the next prime minister.’
Officially, Team Boris say they are still ‘in discussions’ with the broadcasters and have not ruled out taking part.
Allies say he is already rehearsing for them with his team. But last night one Johnson supporter, former Cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, said there was ‘no reason’ for Mr Johnson to join the debate with all six other candidates ‘because he is some way ahead’.
He told the Huffington Post website: ‘It depends on the format and also how many, because he’s some way ahead so there’s no reason for him to debate with everybody.’
Another Johnson-supporting MP warned that a six-way debate could be a ‘gift to Jeremy Corbyn’ if the candidates ended up ‘tearing strips’ off each other.
Mr Johnson faces the prospect of being ’empty chaired’ by Channel 4 if he does not attend. A source said it would ‘keep a lectern there for those who don’t bother to turn up so everyone can see the space’.