Candidates to become Britain’s next prime minister clashed over Brexit strategy at their first debate on Sunday but the frontrunner, Boris Johnson, dodged the confrontation.
The 90-minute debate on Channel 4 featured the five remaining candidates and an empty podium for Johnson, the gaffe-prone former foreign secretary and mayor of London.
In sometimes ill-tempered exchanges, four of the five candidates said they would seek to renegotiate the draft Brexit divorce deal agreed with Brussels even though EU leaders have repeatedly ruled this out.
The fifth, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, said he would press ahead with the current agreement even though it has been rejected by parliament three times this year in a process that has forced out the current prime minister, Theresa May.
Stewart is the candidate with the lowest number of endorsements from fellow Conservative MPs but has waged a strong campaign on social media, reaching out to centre-ground voters from different parties.
He repeatedly challenged the others to detail their own Brexit plans and accused them of “machismo”, earning rounds of applause from the studio audience for his comments.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who supported staying in the EU during the 2016 referendum campaign but now supports Brexit, also struck a conciliatory tone.
– No-deal Brexit ‘deeply damaging’ –
The four candidates without Stewart said they would be willing to lead Britain out of the European Union without a divorce deal on October 31 — the current deadline set by the EU. Johnson has also said Brexit must happen on that date “deal or no deal”.
But Stewart said a no-deal Brexit would be “deeply damaging” and threatening self-harm in an attempt to extract concessions from Brussels was “nonsense”.
Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, who resigned from the government in protest at the government’s compromises with Brussels, went further than the others in not ruling out the suspension of parliament if needed to stop MPs from blocking a no-deal Brexit.
“I’m the only candidate committed to leaving by the end of October come what may,” Raab said.
Another candidate, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, responded saying: “I will not take Britain out of the European Union against the will of parliament.”
Home Secretary Sajid Javid joined in saying: “You don’t deliver on democracy by trashing democracy.”
The debate also featured scrutiny of the candidates’ backgrounds.
Javid, the son of a shopkeeper who immigrated to Britain from Pakistan, repeatedly made references to his humble upbringing saying he was not from Conservative Party “central casting” and could be “a messenger that can appeal to the whole country”.
The presenter, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, also challenged them on more controversial issues that have come up in the campaign such as Gove’s past cocaine use or Raab’s critique of feminism and Stewart’s repeated u-turns.
– Johnson in the lead –
Johnson has come under fire from his rivals for giving few interviews and public appearances.
He has claimed direct bickering between Conservative candidates will be counter-productive.
Conservative MPs will hold successive rounds of voting from Tuesday to reduce the candidates to just two, then 160,000 grassroots party members will pick the winner in a postal ballot.
The victor, who will become Britain’s next prime minister, is set to be announced in the week starting on July 22.
Johnson topped last week’s first round with 114 votes, ahead of Hunt on 43 and Gove on 37.
Raab got 27, Javid got 23 and Stewart was on 19.
The survivors of the second round on Tuesday will face a BBC television debate later the same day, which Johnson has said he will attend.