Jeremy Hunt has called on Boris Johnson not to be a “coward” by avoiding a live TV debate with him this week as the Tory leadership race turned personal.
Hunt suggested dodging a Sky News head-to-head would risk his rival “slinking through the back door” of Number 10 as Johnson remained under pressure to explain why police were called to the home he shares with partner Carrie Symonds,
Foreign Secretary Hunt has previously attacked Johnson over reports he was “bottling” a live TV debate before postal ballots are returned.
In his column for the Daily Telegraph, Johnson attempted to switch attention back to political rather than personal issues as he repeated his determination to deliver Brexit by Halloween.
Stepping up pressure on his rival, Hunt insisted that while he has no interest in debating Johnson’s private life, he wants to challenge him on television over his commitment to taking the UK out of the EU by the end of October.
In an article in The Times, Hunt said: “A new prime minister needs the legitimacy of having made his arguments publicly and having them subjected to scrutiny.
“Only then can you walk through the front door of No 10 with your head held high instead of slinking through the back door, which is what Boris appears to want.”
He added: “Don’t be a coward Boris, man up and show the nation you can cope with the intense scrutiny the most difficult job in the country will involve.”
Hunt said on Sunday that he thought any candidate for prime minister “should answer questions on everything”.
Meanwhile, Johnson wrote in the Telegraph: “We must leave the EU on Oct 31 come what may. It will honour the referendum result, it will focus the minds of EU negotiators.”
He added: “It is absolutely vital that we keep our eyes on the prize. It has been a long and parching march – but the oasis is finally in sight.
“We are just over four months away from the date on which, by law, we must leave the EU; and this time we are not going to bottle it. We are not going to fail.
“This time we are not going to shrink in fear from the exit, as we have on the last two occasions.”
Earlier, Hunt took a swipe at his competitor for Downing Street after Johnson repeatedly refused to reveal what led to the police involvement in the early hours of Friday morning.
Hunt told Sky News: “I think someone who wants to be prime minister should answer questions on everything.
“But I’m not going to comment on issues of character because … I am sure you and I have got things, that, you know, we would be embarrassed if they came out.
“I just think it’s irrelevant given the gravity of the situation. I am not going to comment on Boris’s personal life. That’s for others to make their judgments on.”
The Foreign Secretary insisted his predecessor in the Cabinet role was trying to avoid scrutiny in the battle for Number 10.
“What Boris needs to do is engage properly in this leadership debate.
“This is an audition to be the prime minister of the United Kingdom and Boris needs to show that he is prepared to answer difficult questions.”
Hunt supporter and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox signalled it was better to be clear about what had happened.
Dr Fox told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show: “I think it is always easier to just give an explanation.”
He added: “It is inevitable there is a focus on private lives. That does not concern me. What I am concerned about are the issues.”
Johnson repeatedly refused to explain to Tory grassroots at a Saturday hustings what went on at the south London flat in the early hours of Friday morning, saying the party faithful did not want “to hear about that kind of thing”.
Johnson’s campaign for Number 10 was rocked by the revelations that officers were called to the home he shares with partner Symonds by a neighbour who claimed to have been “frightened and concerned” after hearing shouting, “a loud scream” and banging coming from the property.
A poll carried out after the reports emerged suggested Johnson’s support among Tory voters had dropped by more than half while among the general electorate it indicated he had slipped into second place behind rival Hunt.
At the hustings, moderator Iain Dale drew heckles from some in the crowd when he asked Johnson whether a person’s private life had any bearing on someone’s ability to discharge the office of prime minister.
“Don’t boo the great man,” Johnson said, but Dale suggested he was “completely avoiding” the question.
On Saturday night, the neighbour who rang the Metropolitan Police went public after suggestions that his recording of the row had been leaked to The Guardian with political intent.
Tom Penn said the allegations were “bizarre and fictitious”, explaining in a statement to the paper that he dialled 999 after hearing shouting coming from his neighbour’s flat.
“It was loud enough and angry enough that I felt frightened and concerned for the welfare of those involved, so I went inside my own home, closed the door, and pressed record on the voice memos app on my phone,” the 29-year-old playwright said.
“After a loud scream and banging, followed by silence, I ran upstairs, and with my wife agreed that we should check on our neighbours.
“I knocked three times at their front door, but there was no response. I went back upstairs into my flat and we agreed that we should call the police.”