Jeremy Hunt is preparing to mount an all-out attack on Boris Johnson tonight as the Tory leadership contenders face off in crucial TV debate.
The Foreign Secretary seems to be trailing far behind Mr Johnson in the race to take over from Theresa May as PM.
But allies hope he can turn things around with a strong performance in the first head-to-head showdown – and have vowed that he will turn up the heat.
The ITV event in Manchester tonight comes after weeks of hustings during which they have been separately grilled but never taken each other on.
In a significant escalation of tensions earlier, a Hunt campaign source jibed that the country needed ‘a leader not a newspaper columnist’.
‘Bluster is not a negotiating strategy,’ they said.
Jeremy Hunt (pictured right arriving for the ITV Tory leadership debate in Manchester tonight) is preparing to mount an all-out attack on Boris Johnson
Mr Hunt could also open a dividing line with Mr Johnson over Donald Trump’s extraordinary condemnation of the UK’s ambassador to the US, Sir Kim Darroch.
The US president branded Sir Kim ‘stupid’ and banned him from White House receptions after secret emails were leaked showing the diplomat told ministers the American administration was ‘inept’ and ‘clumsy’.
But while Mr Johnson ducked criticising Mr Trump today, Mr Hunt took to Twitter to defend Sir Kim saying the comments were ‘disrespectful and wrong’.
Mr Johnson will hope to any disasters during the debate, with polls giving him an overwhelming lead among party members.
A new survey has suggested that he could achieve a 40-seat majority for the Tories if he becomes PM and calls an election.
A ComRes survey for the Telegraph suggested that the Tories could secure 345 seats to Labour’s 207 – with the Brexit Party on zero, following Mr Johnson’s claim that he is prepared to seek a No Deal Brexit.
Mr Hunt (pictured in Westminster today) has been frustrated at the reluctance of his rival to engage in direct debate up to now
A new poll suggested that Mr Johnson could achieve a 40-seat majority for the Tories if he won the leadership and became PM
The Hunt ally source added: ‘Boris thinks he’s got this in the bag. He’s measuring up the curtains, promising numerous jobs and kicking back.
‘Is this the man you want round the table at 3am negotiating with the EU?
‘He can’t do detail. He’s u-turned on four policies in recent days. Hikes in public sector pay, axing half the cabinet, milkshake tax, and tax rates all unravelled within 24 hours of being unveiled.
Hague tells Boris to ‘rule out’ suspending Parliament to get No Deal Brexit
Tory former leader Lord Hague has told Boris Johnson to rule out suspending Parliament to try to get a no-deal Brexit through if he becomes prime minister.
Lord Hague, a supporter of Jeremy Hunt, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It is very important that Parliament is able to give its opinion.
‘It ought to be unthinkable that we could leave the European Union by a manoeuvre, by a procedural ruse of some kind.’
Asked if Mr Johnson should rule out proroguing Parliament to get a no-deal Brexit, Lord Hague said: ‘He should rule it out. Yes.’
‘Is this what to expect from a Boris Johnson Premiership?’
Julie Etchingham, who will host the debate tonight in Manchester, confirmed this morning that neither man will sit on a stool, instead having a podium.
This means there will not be a repeat of the five-way debate on the BBC last month in which Tory leadership hopefuls were said to have looked like a boy band perched on high seats.
There has been frustration in the Hunt camp at the reluctance of his rival to engage in direct debate up to now.
Although both men have taken part in numerous hustings – where they take questions separately from party members – Mr Johnson has agreed to take part in only one previous TV debate, when there were still five contenders left in the race.
It appears to be part of a safety-first strategy by his advisers who fear a gaffe could cost him a race which would otherwise be in the bag, leading to accusations that he has been running scared.
Mr Hunt has been particularly critical of Mr Johnson’s unwillingness to subject himself to more detailed scrutiny earlier in the contest.
Ballot papers started going out last week to the party’s estimated 180,000 members, and many will already have voted, meaning that the potential for the debate to alter the course of the contest may be limited.
At a hustings organised by The Daily Telegraph on Monday, Mr Johnson issued a fresh warning to Tory MPs seeking to block a no-deal Brexit.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve has tabled an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill – intended to keep government in the province running in the absence of the devolved institutions – requiring Parliament to come back to the issue in October.
The move is designed to try to ensure the next prime minister cannot push through a no-deal on October 31, the current EU deadline for agreeing on a deal, simply by suspending – or ‘proroguing’ – Parliament.
Speaker John Bercow is expected to announce on Tuesday whether he has selected the amendment for debate, giving MPs the chance to vote on it.
The five-way debate on the BBC last month saw Tory leadership hopefuls perched on high seats, leading critics to say they looks like a boy band
Mr Johnson, who has said he will take Britain out of the EU by the end of October ‘do or die’, warned such tactics risked playing into the hands of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour.
‘If we don’t get Brexit over the line then we face a haemorrhage of support,’ he said, according to the Telegraph.
‘The risk they run is we will hand, by sheer incompetence, this government to a hard line Marxist.
‘I make that point to Dominic Grieve and others who didn’t want to leave the EU. We’ve been very, very negative. We need to be much more robust and confident.’
Mr Hunt said that he believed he would be able to get a new deal with Brussels – but if that proved impossible he would ‘batten down the hatches’ and prepare for no-deal on October 31.
‘I strongly believe if we approach this in the right way, there is a deal to be done,’ he said, according to the Telegraph.
He went on: ‘In September I take it to the EU. At the end of September, I make a judgment: ‘Is there a deal to be done here?’
‘If there isn’t one, we will batten down the hatches and be ready for October 31.’
Mr Johnson also promised to ‘fix’ the pension cap that has resulted in 90% tax rates for some high earners and has led to doctors refusing to work overtime for fear of receiving hefty tax bills.
‘This is something I have raised repeatedly, the £1.1 million pension cap, which is affecting doctors and other people.
‘It’s obviously wrong, it’s causing a real problem, I have raised it repeatedly with the Treasury and they keep telling me they’ve addressed it but the headlines show it has not been addressed, and we will fix it.’