Boris Johnson’s hopes of winning the Tory leadership race have been given a boost after former rival Matt Hancock backed him to be the next prime minister.
Health Secretary Mr Hancock’s decision dealt a blow to Michael Gove’s campaign as the Environment Secretary had been courting the support of his friend, who abandoned his own leadership bid last week.
Mr Hancock, who had ruled out a no-deal Brexit during his campaign, in contrast to Mr Johnson, said the former foreign secretary was now the best candidate to re-unite the fractured Conservative Party.
His endorsement came after the clear frontrunner was criticised for failing to appear in the first of the televised leadership debates staged by Channel 4 on Sunday evening.
Writing in The Times, Mr Hancock said: “Having considered all the options, I’m backing Boris Johnson as the best candidate to unite the Conservative Party, so we can deliver Brexit and then unite the country behind an open, ambitious, forward-looking agenda, delivered with the energy that gets stuff done.”
He said he believed Mr Johnson had a “unique personality” which would bring the Tories together behind a Brexit deal, adding: “We need that unity in the Conservative Party, and then in the country. Let’s move forward.”
Mr Gove admitted he was disappointed by Mr Hancock’s decision.
“He is a friend of mine and I know that over the course of the weekend he had a very tough decision to make,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Without going into private conversations, I know that he was alternating between supporting Boris and supporting me.
“He felt that we were the two strongest candidates in the race.”
Mr Johnson was the clear winner when Tory MPs voted for the first time in the contest, picking up 114 votes with Mr Gove in third place on 37.
The Environment Secretary appeared to concede that Mr Johnson was assured of a place in the final two, and the choice for MPs was who else should be on the ballot paper for Tory members.
“We need to make sure that he is tested and that we have two candidates who go forward – if Boris is one of them – who we know are capable of being prime minister from day one,” he said.
Mr Gove said his experience running three government departments showed he was “ready to take control of the ship of state and steer it safely through the difficult waters ahead”.
He claimed he was a “unifying” figure who could deliver Brexit.
“I think it’s important that you have a government that believes that leaving the European Union is an opportunity to be grasped, not an obligation to be discharged,” he said.
“It is not enough just to believe in Brexit, you have got to be able to deliver it.”
The 20 MPs who backed Mr Hancock in the first round of voting will now have to choose their new candidate, and not all will follow the Health Secretary to Mr Johnson’s camp.
Former Hancock supporter and East Renfrewshire MP Paul Masterton said he would now back Rory Stewart.
Mr Johnson, who has been under fire over his reluctance to face media scrutiny, is likely to face further criticism after refusing to take part in a hustings on Monday organised by political journalists at Westminster.
Instead he chose to use his column in The Daily Telegraph to announce plans to extend full-fibre broadband to every home in the country by within five years, nine years ahead of the Government’s 2033 target.
“A fast internet connection is not some metropolitan luxury. It is an indispensable tool of modern life,” he said.
“It is therefore a disgrace that this country should suffer from a deep digital divide, so that many rural areas and towns are simply left behind.”
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) June 16, 2019
Mr Johnson has said he will take part in a BBC debate on Tuesday, after the second round of voting, when the field of candidates will have been whittled down further.
He was however taunted about his absence in Sunday’s event by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt who said it raised questions about his ability to take on the job of prime minister.
“Where is Boris? If his team won’t allow him out with five pretty friendly colleagues, how is he going to fare with 27 European countries?” he said.
The sharpest exchanges were however dominated by Dominic Raab’s refusal to rule out suspending Parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit.
The former Brexit secretary said he did not think it was likely “but it is not illegal”.
But International Development Secretary Mr Stewart said shutting down Parliament was “undemocratic” and “deeply disturbing” and would not work.
Mr Hunt said it was the “wrong thing to do” while Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: “You don’t deliver democracy by trashing democracy.
“We are not selecting a dictator.”