Jeremy Hunt’s campaign to become the next prime minister has been bolstered by the backing of two Cabinet ministers, as he and his rivals set out their leadership visions.
The Foreign Secretary won the backing of influential Remain supporter Amber Rudd and prominent Brexiteer Penny Mordaunt as he positioned himself as a “serious leader”.
Mr Hunt, who has already gained the support of Liam Fox, warned that the Tories would be “annihilated” if they fight a general election before delivering Brexit, and said his party’s failure to leave the EU has “put our country and our party in grave peril”.
“Without a deal, any Prime Minister who promised to leave by a certain date would have to call a general election to change the parliamentary arithmetic. And that is an election we would lose badly,” he said.
“If we fight an election before delivering Brexit we will be annihilated.”
His leadership launch came as several of his rivals set out their stalls for the top job – including former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove will outline his plans on Monday afternoon, as he battles to stay in the contest after his admission of cocaine use 20 years ago led to calls to withdraw.
Other contenders – including Andrea Leadsom, Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart and Boris Johnson – are expected to launch their campaigns later this week.
Mr Hancock pledged to increase the national living wage to more than £10 an hour, and said he would reduce taxes on working people “when we can afford it”.
Mr Raab spelled out his desire to break from the EU by October 31 even without a deal if necessary, and called for a “generational change in leadership”.
And Ms McVey promised public sector workers a pay rise and vowed to increase police spending and boost funding for education as she set out her vision for the country.
She told the Eurosceptic Bruges Group: “My clear agenda is to deliver Brexit on the 31st of October and then we must unite the country, and then unite our party too.”
It came after front-runner Boris Johnson unveiled a plan to give a massive income tax cut to higher earners south of the border.
The former foreign secretary wants to increase the threshold at which people in the rest of the UK start paying income tax at 40p from £50,000 to £80,000.
Setting out his tax plans in his Daily Telegraph column, Mr Johnson said: “We should be raising thresholds of income tax – so that we help the huge numbers that have been captured in the higher rate by fiscal drag.”
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon branded the contest to succeed Mrs May as a “horror show”, tweeting: “Tax cuts for the richest, attacks on abortion rights, hypocrisy on drugs, continued Brexit delusion. True colours well and truly on show.”