Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have begun efforts to win over Tory members against a backdrop of infighting, a looming by-election and a fresh warning from Brussels about Brexit.
The two leadership rivals were addressing senior Tory councillors in Westminster ahead of the first official members’ hustings of the contest on Saturday.
The scale of the challenge facing whoever becomes the next party leader and prime minister was laid bare as the Tories suffered a series of blows:
– The new leader is likely to face a difficult by-election after Chris Davies was ousted as the Tory MP for Brecon and Radnorshire after constituents signed a petition to remove him following a conviction for faking expenses claims
– Chief Whip Julian Smith promised an investigation after MP Antoinette Sandbach was called a “disgrace” by an unnamed male colleague
– Mark Field, an ally of Mr Hunt, was suspended as a Foreign Office minister after manhandling a climate change protester at a black-tie dinner
– Bank of England governor Mark Carney rejected Mr Johnson’s claim that trading arrangements with the EU could be preserved even if the UK left without a deal
– European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk again insisted the Brexit deal on offer would not be rewritten
Mr Hunt insisted that he could beat clear favourite Mr Johnson when Tory members cast their votes, claiming he was “someone they trust to be prime minister”.
In an early indication of the campaign lines he will use to separate himself from the flamboyant former London mayor, Mr Hunt said he would be a “wise prime minister who makes sensible calls” on Brexit.
The Foreign Secretary insisted Brussels would be willing to listen to him.
“The thing that’s not going to work in Theresa May’s deal is this Northern Irish backstop which means we are trapped in the customs union until they give us permission to leave, so that’s got to change,” he said.
“And who do we trust to change that, someone who the EU will talk to and negotiate with? I’m that person.”
Both Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson want to secure changes to the Brexit deal before the UK’s scheduled exit on October 31.
In Brussels, European Council president Mr Tusk said: “Maybe the process of Brexit will be even more exciting than before because of some personnel decisions in London, but nothing has changed when it comes to our position.”
In Brecon and Radnorshire, the Tories will face a battle with the Liberal Democrats, who held the seat from 1997 to 2015.
The loss of Mr Davies also increases the new leader’s vulnerability if Labour calls an early confidence motion in the Commons because there will be one less MP on the Tory side of the House.
The result of the leadership election is due to be announced in the week beginning July 22 following the ballot of Tory members and the earliest date for a by-election is likely to be July 25 – although the Conservatives could choose to delay it.
Mr Hunt tweeted in support of Mr Davies, who was convicted for faking expenses claims after submitting two false expenses invoices for landscape photographs to decorate his new office.
The leadership hopeful said: “Whatever the rights and wrongs of his expenses claim I have only ever know Chris Davies as a decent and honest man and a very diligent local MP.”
Acrimony persisted within the Conservative ranks following the Westminster stage of the leadership race.
Antoinette Sandbach, who backed Rory Stewart for the leadership, published messages she said were sent by a male colleague, apparently over her continuing opposition to a no-deal Brexit.
A screenshot of two messages read: “You too are a disgrace. Time you left the party I think.”
The Chief Whip Mr Smith said the unnamed male MP’s comments were “totally unacceptable” and promised an investigation.
Ms Sandbach linked the abusive message to the underhand tactics she said were used during the Tory leadership campaign.
“All the dark ops we have been hearing about don’t cast a good light on politicians and they don’t cast a good light on politics,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Despite denials by Mr Johnson’s campaign, there has been widespread speculation that his supporters worked to prevent his arch-rival Michael Gove making it on to the final ballot by backing Mr Hunt in the final round.
Johnny Mercer, a supporter of Mr Johnson told Today: “I’m pretty close to Mr Johnson and the operation and the campaign, and I just haven’t seen it – I haven’t seen it going on, I’m not convinced it’s possible.”
Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery said: “It is clear the Conservative Party is in crisis and unfit to govern.”
Meanwhile, Bank of England governor Mr Carney rejected claims by Mr Johnson that a trade rule known as Gatt 24 would allow existing tariff arrangements to apply following a no-deal Brexit until a new agreement is reached with Brussels.
Mr Carney told the BBC: “Gatt applies if you have an agreement, not if you have decided not to have an agreement or have been unable to come to an agreement.”
"No-deal means no-deal. It means there's a substantial change in the trading relationship with the EU"@bankofengland governor Mark Carney refutes Boris Johnson's claim that the UK could get a "standstill" on its current trade arrangements. Full interview at 0810 #r4Todaypic.twitter.com/k4MGirrQQh
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) June 21, 2019