The former foreign secretary was backed by one in three (33%) party supporters in an online survey by the Conservative Home website. He had more than twice the support of his nearest rivals Dominic Raab, backed by 15% and Michael Gove, with 12% in the poll of around 1,300 readers of the centre-Right site. The results were seen as a sign that Mr Johnson, who has pledged to lead the UK out of the EU by October 31 with or without a deal, is leading as the choice of the grassroots Tories who will pick the final candidates after a series of knock-out ballots among the party’s MPs.
But other contenders stepped up their criticism of the former Cabinet minister yesterday, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock launching a scathing attack on his attitude to business leaders.
He seized on a claim that Mr Johnson allegedly said “F*** business” during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign in response to warnings from employers that Brexit could wreck the economy and cause job cuts.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Hancock said: “To the people who say ‘f*** business’, I say ‘f***, f*** business.”‘
Expanding on his argument in a BBC Radio 4’s Today programme interview yesterday, the Health Secretary said: “I mean that we need to back business and not bash business.
“This is incredibly important for the future of the country, for the future of the Conservative Party, that in this leadership debate we understand that we need to be a pro-business party.
“We need to support businesses because they’re the ones who create the jobs.”
Asked if Boris Johnson’s reported comments disqualified him from being a candidate, he said “no”, adding: “I think that the attitude and the phrase is wrong. We need enthusiastically to get behind the job creators.”
Mr Hancock’s broadside came hours after he signed a “clean campaign pledge” including a commitment “not to speak ill of fellow Conservatives”.
Some Tory MPs saw the pledge, also signed by Dominic Raab and Sajid Javid, as part of a “dirty tricks” operation as only some contenders were invited to sign it before it was published.
Former minister Steve Baker, who is considering joining the leadership race, said of the pledge: “Schoolboy dirty tricks like this could kill the Conservative Party. It is imperative this campaign is genuinely clean.”
Some Tories feared the pledge was partly designed to embarrass Mr Johnson over a “Boris on the Ballot” campaign set up to encourage members of the public to write to Tory MPs to urge them to back the former foreign secretary in the leadership race.
International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, another leadership contender, yesterday admitted Mr Johnson was seen as the key candidate to knock out of the race.
“I think he is the favourite, he’s the front runner, he’s the real big beast here and he’s the person that all of us have to stake out our positions against, he’s the one to beat,” Mr Stewart said.
Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg reiterated his support for Mr Johnson yesterday, describing him as “overwhelmingly the best option” to succeed Mrs May as Prime Minister.
He said Mr Johnson is the only person who can get the Conservatives back on a positive footing, calling him the “charismatic leader who managed to win in London against all the odds”.
Mr Rees-Mogg added: “He’s someone who can deliver on policies, win in Labour areas and is committed to Brexit.”
Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt last night sparked fresh speculation she could be poised to enter the race by calling for “a different kind of leadership” that could “restore trust, confidence and hope”.
In an article on the Conservative Home website, she said the battle for the Tory crown “cannot mirror those of the past”.
Ms Mordaunt is also planning a major consultation exercise with Tory members, allowing them to express their views.
In her article, Ms Mordaunt wrote: “The public now has to endure a parade of leadership candidates speaking to Westminster, from Westminster, about Westminster. Policy has given way to presentation.”
She says that issues from social care to improving social mobility had not been tackled, with “worthy reports” allowed to “largely reside under a thick layer of dust in the ‘too tough in-tray”‘.
Acknowledging Westminster’s failure to deal with the problems she will say: “The focus on the major challenges facing the world, and the inspiration for us all to tackle them, appears not to be driven by brave politicians but Blue Planet film makers and school children.”
Setting out what she believes is required from the next prime minister, Ms Mordaunt says: “To be a political leader now, when we need to restore trust, confidence and hope, will take more than the usual tired routine.
“And so, this leadership contest cannot mirror those of the past. It has to be more than a fight against competing factions. We must articulate national missions that we can all unite around.
“How do we ensure every citizen can reach their full potential, access the best healthcare science has discovered, protect the environment, provide social care and living support, and a secure home for all?
“To unlock our nation’s potential requires a different kind of leadership. Britain needs some humility from its leaders, not just from the candidates in this contest, but from us all.
“And that starts with listening.”
Ms Mordaunt’s live consultation call on June 4 will allow members to vote on issues and email in further ideas.