Hunt dares Johnson to ‘debate you anytime anywhere’
The Foreign Secretary has written directly to his opponent telling him not to “hide away” from public scrutiny in the final stages of the contest. Making a Martini-pledge to Mr Johnson to “debate you anytime anywhere” on live TV, Mr Hunt dared his adversary to sign up. Mr Johnson has faced claims he is remaining below the radar to avoid any mistakes that could harm his campaign.
He refused to take part in a Channel 4 television clash and has largely steered clear of big media interviews.
Mr Hunt has accepted invitations from the major broadcasters and wants a series of showdowns with Mr Johnson before Conservative party members begin to fill out their postal votes that will decide who is the next prime minister.
He wrote: “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 – the ITV debate on July 9 which is after members will have started to return their postal ballots.
“We do this country and our democracy a deep dis-service 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 anytime 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 accepted invitations from Sky, ITV and the BBC to take part in debates in the coming weeks.
He added: “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.
“My message is simple: if you want the job, you have to turn up for the interviews.”
Mr Hunt squeaked through to the final stage of the contest by just two votes amid claims of a “dark ops” campaign to keep Michael Gove off the ballot paper.
Mr Johnson’s team have been accused of lending votes to Mr Hunt to end the Environment Secretary’s bid.
Mr Gove wrecked the former foreign secretary’s campaign for No 10 last time round, starting a bitter feud.
A source who backs Mr Johnson said: “There’s an old saying, he who lives by the sword will surely die by the sword. Or in Michael’s case, it would be a dagger.”
Mr Johnson’s camp played down claims “dark arts” had been used during the campaign.
Hunt’s motto is ‘if you want the job, you have to turn up for the interviews’
Tory MP Johnny Mercer said: “I have to be honest, I’m pretty close to Mr Johnson and the operation and the campaign, and I just haven’t seen it – I haven’t seen it going on, I’m not convinced it’s possible.”
Conservative Andrew Bridgen said: “I have no evidence for any vote rigging but it’s clear, as in every election, that people may vote for a particular candidate or against another candidate.”
Another supporter of Mr Johnson, Simon Clarke, suggested some MPs may have “freelanced” outside the official campaign.
In the final ballot of MPs, Mr Johnson secured support from more than half the Tory Party in the Commons with 160 votes, while Mr Hunt had 77 votes – just two ahead of Mr Gove on 75.
Suspicions were heightened at Westminster after Mr Johnson’s total in the final round of the secret ballot did not rise as much as expected.
At least five of Sajid Javid’s supporters said they would back Mr Johnson after the Home Secretary’s elimination from the contest, but the former foreign secretary’s vote tally only increased by three.
In a further sign of the acrimony within the Tory ranks, an investigation has been launched by Chief Whip Julian Smith after one MP called a colleague a “disgrace” who should quit the party.
Conservative Andrew Bridgen confirmed there is no evidence of vote rigging
Antoinette Sandbach, who backed Rory Stewart for the leadership, published abusive messages she said were sent by a male colleague, apparently over her continuing opposition to a no-deal Brexit.
A screenshot of two messages read: “You too are a disgrace. Time you left the party I think.”
In a subsequently deleted tweet, Ms Sandbach said: “Barely is the ink dry on the results and the dark ops begin.
“This is from a male Conservative MP to me as I sat on the train home.”
Mr Smith said the unnamed male MP’s comments were “totally unacceptable” and promised an investigation and a meeting on Monday.
Ms Sandbach linked the abusive message to the underhand tactics she said were used during the Tory leadership campaign.
“All the dark ops we have been hearing about don’t cast a good light on politicians and they don’t cast a good light on politics,” she said.
“You can say it’s long been a feature of politics but I think we need to move on from that.”