Embargoed to 2230 Friday June 21, 2019
Conservative leadership contender Jeremy Hunt has issued a challenge to his rival Boris Johnson to debate him “any time, anywhere on live TV” in the four-week campaign, amid fears in the foreign secretary’s camp that the runaway favourite may try to “hide away” to avoid scrutiny.
The pair will appear on stage in front of hundreds of rank-and-file Conservative members at the first regional hustings of the leadership contest in Birmingham on Saturday.
But they will not engage directly with one another at the 16 regional hustings events, instead making presentations and taking questions during separate 45-minute sessions.
With the foreign secretary trailing in polls of the 160,000 Tory members who will pick the new prime minister, the Hunt camp believe their best chance of catching up is making their candidate visible and pitching him into head-to-head encounters with Johnson, particularly in live TV debates.
They believe this strategy will allow Mr Hunt to focus attention on the issue of trust – which has been identified as Mr Johnson’s weak spot with both Tory members and voters more generally.
The Brexit figurehead has so far committed to only one TV debate, to be staged by ITV on 9 July, which crucially will come too late for Tory members who return their ballot papers soon after receiving them three days earlier.
In an open letter to Mr Johnson, Mr Hunt challenged his rival: “My message is simple: if you want the job, you have to turn up for the interviews.”
Having avoided the “psychodrama” of a face-off with Michael Gove, the man who sabotaged Mr Johnson’s 2016 bid for the leadership, the Johnson camp are understood to be keen to limit comparisons with his remaining rival, putting the emphasis instead on his ability to see off Labour and put Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage “back in his box”.
In his first intervention since securing his place as one of the final two, Mr Johnson instead majored on his claim to be the best candidate to keep Jeremy Corbyn out of Downing Street.
Speaking to local council Conservative group leaders, the former London mayor denounced the Labour leader as an “antisemitism condoning, Kremlin-apologising” figure who had taken Iran’s side over the US in the recent Gulf crisis and would hike taxes to pay for a “deranged” nationalisation programme.
In a clear message to Tory members to be wary of going along with a “coronation” of Mr Johnson, Mr Hunt noted that neither Gordon Brown nor Theresa May had been subjected to the close scrutiny of a hard-fought leadership campaign, adding that “the stakes are too high to allow that to happen again”.
Addressing Mr Johnson, he said: “The purpose of this stage is to test us – our plans, our policies, our character. I’m concerned that you have only so far committed to one TV debate.
“We do this country and our democracy a deep disservice if we hide away until members have submitted their postal ballots.
“So my challenge to you is this – let’s have live televised debates right at the start of this contest, and specifically at least two in the next two weeks before members receive their ballot papers. I will debate you any time, anywhere on live TV.
“And let’s bring the public into this process. The members decide the leader, but that leader will have to lead the whole country. So after each hustings, let’s mirror that with a live debate on local media that the public can listen to. I can spare half an hour to meet the public and I’m sure you can too.”
Mr Hunt said he had agreed to take part in live debates hosted by Sky, the BBC, Channel 4 and The Sun, as well as the ITV broadcast on which they will go head-to-head.
Mr Hunt told Mr Johnson: “Scrutiny can be uncomfortable. But if we can’t handle it with friends, we won’t deserve to lead against our opponents.
“Neither Gordon Brown nor Theresa May were tested in this way before they took the top job and many think it would have been much better for our country if they had. The stakes are too high to allow that to happen again.”
Speaking to Tory council leaders, Mr Johnson invoked his wartime hero Sir Winston Churchill as he held out the prospect of better times ahead for the party after woeful election results under Ms May.
“I’ve never known a time where we got 9 per cent in a national election,” he said. “My message to you today is: the hour is darkest before the dawn. We can turn this thing around.”
Churchill famously spoke of “the darkest hour” when Britain’s fortunes were at their lowest in the Second World War.
Some 20,000 Tory members have applied for tickets to 16 hustings events around the country between 22 June and 17 July. The postal ballot concludes on 22 July and the identity of the new leader will be announced that week.
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