Boris Johnson in commanding lead ahead of third Conservative ballot

Five leadership contenders rule out calling a general election before Britain leaves EU

Conservative Party leadership contenders  Boris Johnson,  Jeremy Hunt,  Michael Gove,  Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart take part in the BBC television debate in London. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/AFP/Getty Images

Conservative Party leadership contenders Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart take part in the BBC television debate in London. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/AFP/Getty Images

 

Conservative MPs vote in a third leadership ballot on Wednesday with Boris Johnson retaining a commanding lead after former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab was eliminated from the contest on Tuesday.

International development secretary Rory Stewart almost doubled his vote on the second ballot, moving ahead of home secretary Sajid Javid, who won the minimum needed to survive into the next round.

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt remained in second place but gained only three votes since last week’s ballot, with Michael Gove, who gained just four, still in third place.

The five remaining candidates clashed over Brexit and tax policy during a sometimes chaotic BBC television debate on Tuesday night. They all ruled out calling a general election before Britain leaves the European Union but disagreed on how to negotiate Brexit.

Mr Johnson said Britain must leave the EU by October 31st but he repeatedly declined to offer a guarantee that he would meet that deadline. Mr Javid proposed removing the Northern Ireland backstop from the withdrawal agreement before asking MPs to vote on it again.

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Mr Hunt said the only way to get a better deal from Brussels was to be prepared to walk away from an unsatisfactory deal.

“If you take no-deal off the table, then we won’t get a deal. The reason why we need to keep no-deal on the table is to get a deal. But it should only be a very, very last resort - because families and livelihoods are at risk. We are the party of business and the party of the union - and we must protect them,” he said.

Mr Stewart, who backs the withdrawal agreement in its current form, accused Mr Johnson of offering no answer to how farmers in Northern Ireland would survive the imposition of tariffs in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He said getting the withdrawal agreement through parliament was the only way for Britain to leave the EU.

“In the end we’re in a room with a door, and the door is called parliament, and I am the only person here trying to find the key to the door. Everybody else is staring at the wall shouting ‘Believe in Britain’,” he said.

Mr Johnson said he was sorry for any offence caused by remarks made in a recent newspaper column when he described Muslim women who wear the burqa as looking like “letter boxes”.

“In so far as my words have given offence over the last 20 or 30 years when I have been a journalist and people have taken those words out of my articles and escalated them, of course I am sorry for the offence they have caused,” he said.

Mr Johnson got 126 votes in Tuesday’s ballot, an increase of 12 since last week, Mr Hunt got 46, Mr Gove 41, Mr Stewart 37 and Mr Javid 33.

After Wednesday’s ballot, the candidate with the lowest number of votes will be eliminated and two further ballots are scheduled on Thursday to produce two candidates to go before the entire Conservative party membership.