Tory leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt has taken a swipe at Boris Johnson’s Brexit stance, insisting his rival has an unclear policy and suggesting he is not trusted in Brussels.
The Foreign Secretary said he was “not entirely sure” what the front-runner in the race to become the next prime minister believes when it comes to when Britain will leave the EU.
In a televised debate on Tuesday evening, Mr Johnson said the October 31 deadline for Brexit must be met, warning that otherwise there would be a “catastrophic loss of confidence in politics”.
But Mr Hunt accused the former foreign secretary of lacking clarity on whether he guaranteed delivering Brexit by the end of October.
He told 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, who came second in the second Tory leadership ballot on Tuesday, also said he was best placed to cut a deal with Brussels on Brexit, saying: “We need a negotiator.”
He said a negotiator has 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.”
Another candidate will face the axe on Wednesday afternoon – with Mr Johnson, Mr Hunt, Michael Gove, Rory Stewart and Sajid Javid battling it out for the top job.
The first debate on Tuesday night is unlikely to have swayed many MPs’ minds, ending with no clear winner after a fractious debate taking in Brexit, Islamophobia and climate change.
However, Mr Gove claimed he “won the debate” on BBC Newsnight, “because I had the most detailed answers and I have a clear plan to how we can deliver Brexit and make sure we get all the benefits of life outside the European Union”.
As the candidate who currently has the fewest number of backers, there are rumours Sajid Javid could drop out, but supporter Stephen Crabb told Newsnight his favoured candidate had performed well in the debates and was not about to quit.
“Did Sajid Javid look like a man who’s about to throw in the towel or about to be knocked out of the contest?” Mr Crabb said.
“He fought tonight, I thought he gave – in a difficult format – he gave a good display of what he can offer the country.”
International Development Secretary Mr Stewart struck a positive note on Wednesday morning, telling Today that he has received positive responses from backers of eliminated hardline Brexiteer candidate Dominic Raab.
During the BBC debate, Mr Johnson’s rivals had rounded on him over his ambition to give people earning more than £50,000 a tax cut.
Just hours after winning the second round of voting among Tory MPs – which saw Mr Raab eliminated – Mr Johnson faced his opponents in a TV studio for the first time, having ducked the previous televised debate.
He came under fire for his tax plans, and was also taken to task over his comments comparing veiled Muslim women to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”.
Mr Johnson said he would lift the National Insurance threshold for the low-paid, but there should be a “debate” about the 40p higher income tax rate, which currently kicks in at £50,000.
“It does seem to be very odd that in the Conservative Party people should seriously question whether it is right to try to lift nurses and heads of maths departments and police inspectors out of the top rate of tax,” he said.
But Foreign Secretary Mr Hunt said people accused the Tories of being “the party of the rich” and “we must never fall into the trap of doing tax cuts for the rich and confirming that prejudice”.
Environment Secretary Mr Gove said “cutting taxes for folk who earn what MPs earn and what millionaires earn, I think that is wrong”.
Mr Stewart, whose campaign has gained momentum, hit out at his rivals for making promises on Brexit and taxes that they could not keep.