Johnson’s rivals scrap for second place as frontrunner stays under cover

Hunt ahead among public endorsements from MPs in race to join Johnson on final ballot

Ahead of Tuesday's second round of voting by MPs in the Conservative leadership contest, five of the six remaining candidates faced a grilling from Westminster political journalists. Frontrunner Boris Johnson stayed away, just as he avoided Sunday night's Channel Four News debate, and for the same reason.

Johnson already has enough support among MPs to ensure that his is one of the two names to go before the party membership in the final ballot and public exposure now carries risks without much potential reward. Clustered within a few votes of one another, the other five candidates are taking every opportunity to stand out as they fight it out to remain in the race after Tuesday's knockout vote.

International development secretary Rory Stewart won fewer votes than the others in last week's ballot but his campaign is gaining momentum and on Monday night he won the backing of Theresa May's de facto deputy, David Lidington.

Stewart embraced a comparison of his campaign to Mel Brooks’s film The Producers, in which a Broadway producer stages a show designed to be a surefire flop.


"I'm wandering around in Poplar and safe Labour seats, I've got Gary Lineker retweeting me – theoretically this should be catastrophic," he said.

Withdrawal agreement

Stewart dismisses the idea of renegotiating the withdrawal agreement as “for the birds” and he promises to convene a three-week citizens’ assembly to break the deadlock if parliament again rejects May’s deal. Ireland’s citizens’ assemblies were successful in dislodging prejudices and shifting public opinion partly because they were conducted over months and Stewart acknowledged that his truncated version might not work.

“The citizens’ assembly is a threat over parliament. It’s the Plan B, not the Plan A,” he said.

“Parliament is sovereign. If they come up with something parliament doesn’t want, parliament will reject it. But at least we’ve got a better chance of getting it through than pretending that we’re going to fantasise some different deal out of parliament or we’re going to fantasise some different deal out of Brussels.”

Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab claims that he would have secured a better deal if the prime minister had allowed him to be tougher. But his claims about his negotiations with Dublin and Brussels are disputed by his interlocutors, most of whom concluded that he could not be trusted. He said reports that he asked Tánaiste Simon Coveney for a three-month time limit on the backstop were untrue.

“It was clearly an attempt by Dublin to discredit my good-faith attempt to find a solution,” he said.

He said Brussels was also trying to discredit him and that the issue of the Border was magnified for tactical reasons.

‘Massively politicised’

"Dublin and Brussels massively politicised this issue. It's not because of an exclusive interest in safeguarding the Republic or Northern Ireland, it's because they want to tie us to the customs union and all of those rules and regulations which were precisely the reason people voted to leave," he said.

Unlike Raab, Michael Gove is not seeking to remove the backstop from the withdrawal agreement but simply to build on the EU's commitment to introduce alternative arrangements for the Border that could see the backstop fall away or never be used.

“I think it’s possible to supplement the withdrawal agreement with a document of equal force to ensure that alternative arrangements will be introduced expeditiously,” he said.

Gove trumpeted his gifts as a debater, asserting that he is the leader Jeremy Corbyn would fear most at the despatch box every week. But home secretary Sajid Javid said his own lack of polish as a debater was the product of his lack of opportunity growing up.

He spoke about how he had made the same choice as many young Asians in Britain who pursued careers such as accountancy where exam results were key because they believed there was less scope for discrimination.

“People don’t want to see a final which is a sort of Oxford Union debate. I’m someone who has experience of life, real life at the rough end,” he said.

Serious misstep

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt was the only candidate to make a serious misstep, appearing to endorse Donald Trump's retweeting of Katie Hopkins's attack on London mayor Sadiq Khan in which she described the British capital as "Khan's Londonistan" and "stab city".

The other candidates condemned the tweet but Hunt said he would not have used the same words as the US president but he would “150 per cent agree” with the overall sentiment about knife crime in London.

Hunt is ahead among public endorsements from MPs in the race to join Johnson on the final ballot but with at least once candidate set to be eliminated on Tuesday, nobody at Westminster can predict how this contest will play out over the next few days.