Boris Johnson was assailed by a fellow Tory Cabinet Minister for putting his personal ambition to become Prime Minister ahead Britain’s national interest in the first real set piece televised debate of the European referendum campaign.
In fiery exchanges, the former London Mayor was accused by Energy Secretary Amber Rudd of misusing statistics and only being interested getting into Downing Street.
“The only number Boris Johnson is interested in is Number 10,” she claimed.
Ms Rudd also lambasted Mr Johnson for Vote Leave’s claim that Britain gives the EU £350 million a week – one of the Brexit campaign’s key claims that appears on its campaign bus.
“That bus is pure fantasy,” she told him. “We're going to repaint that bus with a leprechaun on one end a big rainbow and pot of gold at the other.”
Mr Johnson and Vote Leave, she said, were guilty of perpetuating “misinformation and a con”.
“Boris, I have to call you out again for misleading the public,” she said at one point while concluding the debate by questioning his suitability for high office.
“Boris is the life and soul of the party but not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening,” she said.
But Mr Johnson and fellow Tory Brexit supporter Andrea Leadsom hit back claiming that Britain would have £10 billion a year to spend on priorities like the NHS if the UK pulled out of the EU.
And they accused Ms Rudd and the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon of “miserable scaremongering” in order to win the referendum.
“This scaremongering has got to stop from the Remain side,” said Ms Leadsom.
In a lively debate – with three politicians representing each side of the of the European argument – it quickly became apparent that the strategy of the Remain camp was to attack Mr Johnson’s motives for campaigning to leave.
But the former Mayor remained calm despite the repeated attacks sticking to his message that the UK would be better off outside the European Union.
“To the prophets of doom, I say they were wrong in the past and they are wrong today,” he said.
“Let us believe in ourselves, let's take back control, let's speak up for all the people around the EU who are looking to us to speak for democracy.”
Ms Rudd joined forces with Labour’s shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle and the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to argue the care to remain.
Mr Johnson represented Vote Leave with fellow Tory minister Andrea Leadsom and Labour MP Gisela Stuart.
They faced questions from an ITV studio audience on the NHS, employment rights, trade and the costs of Britain’s membership of the EU.
Both sides accused each other of not answering key questions on Britain’s future both in and out of the European Union – with some justification on both sides.
Mr Johnson failed to explain why he is on record calling for a reduction in employment rights but claimed that all employment rights would be protected if Britain left the EU.
The Remain side failed to answer which, if any, EU regulations and laws they were not in favour of.
Ms Sturgeon also refused to say whether she would call another independence referendum in Scotland if her country voted to stay in the EU and the rest of the country voted to leave.
“I am not here to speculate about what happens in the case of a Brexit vote,” she said.
The SNP leader was also attacked by Brexit campaigners for failing to respect the result of the first Scottish referendum.
One member of the audience said the whole debate on the European Union appeared to have descended into “who could shout the loudest”.
Both sides repeated accused each other of lying and misrepresenting the facts.
At one stage Ms Leadsom accused her boss at the Department of Energy Ms Rudd of making comments that were the ”lowest of the low“.
Ms Stuart - one of a handful of Labour MPs backing Brexit - said that voters should ask themselves one question: “Would you join the European Union today?' The answer, in terms of control over money, borders, security, taxes and trade, would be No, she said.
She added that the European Union had changed from 1975 when she had enthusiastically backed Britain’s membership and she said there were as many risks involved in remaining as there were in leaving.
”The EU just isn't working any more,“ she said. ”The noble idea dreamt up in the last century is turning into a nightmare.“
Both sides will have been pleased by the passionate and fiery nature of all the debate. But whether it will have convinced voters on either sides to switch positions is much less certain.
The EU referendum debate has so far been characterised by bias, distortion and exaggeration. So until 23 June we we’re running a series of question and answer features that explain the most important issues in a detailed, dispassionate way to help inform your decision.
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