Boris Johnson: Five of his key moments from the Tory leadership debate

Contest frontrunner grilled on Islamophobia, Brexit deadlines and cutting top tax rate

Adam Forrest
Wednesday 19 June 2019 07:18 BST
Boris Johnson fails to answer question on 'letterbox' comments towards Muslims

Boris Johnson – the frontrunner to be the next Tory leader and UK prime minister – was challenged to explain his views on Brexit, taxes, Heathrow expansion and his “letterbox” comment about Muslim women wearing the veil during Tuesday’s television leadership debate.

Having ducked the previous TV debate, all eyes were on Mr Johnson as he joined his four remaining rivals on the BBC to answer questions by host Emily Maitlis and members of the public. So how did the favourite fare under pressure? Here are the five key moments.


Mr Johnson began the debate by repeating his pledge he would take the UK out of the EU by the autumn deadline. “We must come out on the 31 October because, otherwise I am afraid we face a catastrophic loss of confidence in politics,” he said.

Despite attacks from Rory Stewart, Mr Johnson insisted that keeping the no deal option on the table was a necessary negotiating tactic with the EU. He claimed threatening no deal was “the way we will get the deal we need”.

“We have already kicked the can down the road twice and I think the British people are getting thoroughly fed up. Unless we get out on 31 October, I think that we will all start to pay a really serious price.”

He did however make efforts to water down his stance of recent weeks, repeatedly insisting he did not want to pursue a “disorderly” no-deal Brexit as a first option.

Boris Johnson says failing to leave by October 31 will be 'catastrophic' during leadership debate

The ‘letterbox’ comment and Islamophobia

Mr Johnson was challenged by BBC host Emily Maitlis over his comparison of veiled Muslim women to “letterboxes”. He expressed regret for any “offence caused” for past comments, but did not answer the question directly.

The candidate answered by saying: “In so far as my words have given offence over the last 20 or 30 years when I have been a journalist and people have taken those words out of my articles and escalated them, of course I am sorry for the offence they have caused.”

Responding to a question on Islamophobia, Mr Johnson said: “When my Muslim great-grandfather came to this country in fear of his life in 1912, he did so because he knew it was a place that was a beacon of hope and of generosity and openness, and a willingness to welcome people from around the world.”

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Grilled about his handling of the case of imprisoned British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during his time as foreign secretary, Mr Johnson denied that his erroneous suggestion she had been involved in training journalists had contributed to an increased sentence in an Iranian jail.

Interrupted by Ms Maitlis – who said “words have consequences” – Mr Johnson said: “In that case, it didn’t, I think, make any difference,” he said.

“If you point the finger at the UK, all you are doing is exculpating those who are truly responsible, which is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.”


The leadership rivals rounded on Mr Johnson over his plan to cut taxes for people earning more than £50,000. The frontrunner said he would lift the National Insurance threshold for the low-paid but there should be a “debate” about the higher income tax rate.

“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.

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “What people accused the Conservatives of is they say we are the party of the rich. We must never fall into the trap of doing tax cuts for the rich and confirming that prejudice.”

Environment secretary Michael Gove said: “I think Boris is making one mistake on tax, which is that of the money we have he is concentrating on cutting taxes for folk who earn what MPs earn and what millionaires earn. I think that is wrong.”

Heathrow expansion

The Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP’s rivals were also critical of Mr Johnson’s shifting views on the airport’s expansion.

Asked if he would allow the third runway to be built, having once claimed he would lie down in front of bulldozers to prevent it, Mr Johnson said: “I continue to have grave reservations about the Heathrow runway three.”

“Not just from the point of view of air quality but also noise pollution as well and I will continue to use all the instruments ... to reduce CO2. As you know, court cases are now proceeding and as prime minister I will be following those very closely indeed.”

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