Boris Johnson finally emerged from his bunker to face Tory rivals in a bad-tempered TV debate tonight – after Rory Stewart’s surge in the latest vote by MPs set the battle on fire.
The former foreign secretary came under fire from all sides as he lined up alongside Mr Stewart, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid for the hour-long session at the BBC studios in London.
He immediately set out his stall on Brexit, insisting the UK must leave the EU by Halloween. Asked whether he could guarantee the country will be out by the deadline, he said: ‘We must come out in the 31st October because otherwise I am afraid we face a catastrophic loss of confidence in politics.
‘We have already kicked the can down the road twice and I think the British people are getting thoroughly fed up.’
But the exchanges quickly descended into furious squabbling, as Mr Hunt and Mr Gove insisted they were ready to push the schedule back if a ‘few more days’ were needed to finalise a deal with the EU.
However, his tally was only up 12 on the week before – sparking speculation that some MPs might be backing him in public but taking advantage of the secret ballot to help Mr Stewart’s cause.
Emily Maitlis is presenting the BBC special tonight, but the format set by the corporation has caused dismay. There is no live studio audience, and questions are being be posed by ‘ordinary’ voters from other studios around the country. The candidates were also seated on stools instead of behind podiums, with jibes that they resemble a boy band.
The debate tonight was decried as shambolic on social media, with many viewers suggesting Maitlis had lost control as the candidates talked over each other.
At one point she desperately hissed ‘ssshhh’ at them as they vied for airtime.
Mr Johnson said Brussels was sick of Brexit, and were ready to give the UK a better deal. ‘They want us out of the EU, they want this done and they don’t want a disorderly Brexit,’ he said.
Mr Javid highlighted his proposal to pump hundreds of millions of pounds into a hi-tech Irish border, to get over the issue of drawing a hard line between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Mr Javid warned that there must be a ‘hard deadline’ for Brexit, saying that flexibility had been a problem under Theresa May. ‘So far we have failed. We have failed to act on those instructions. We have got to learn from our mistakes,’ he said.
‘If you don’t have a deadline you do not concentrate minds… we have to set a date.’
Boris Johnson tonight appeared to back off his call for £10billion of tax cuts for the wealthy as he came under intense fire from Tory rivals.
The former foreign secretary had proposed raising the higher rate threshold from £50,000 to £80,000.
But he was roundly criticised by the other candidates, with Michael Gove saying: ‘I went into politics to help the very poorest in society.’
A clearly taken aback Mr Johnson then conceded that the idea would be up for ‘debate’ and could form part of a wider ‘package’.
Mr Gove pointed to his record as one of the leaders of Vote Leave in the 2016 referendum. ‘I started this so I’ll finish it,’ he said.
But Mr Stewart raged that it was not possible to get No Deal through parliament, saying: ‘Every single one of these people is not saying how they will do it.’
He added that he would rule out leaving without a deal altogether. ‘In the end, we’re in a room with a door and the door is called Parliament, and I am the only person here trying to find the key to the door. ‘Everybody else is staring at the wall shouting ‘believe in Britain’,’ he said.
Earlier, after nearly doubling his support to 37, Mr Stewart admitted he had no idea who was in his camp, saying he had been ‘pleasantly surprised’.