Hunt: Boris cares about No 10 more than Brexit
Tory rivals clash with personal attacks over ambition and Britain’s ‘do or die’ exit date
JEREMY HUNT accused Boris Johnson of “peddling optimism” to get into Downing Street as he used the first head-to-head leadership debate to launch a series of highly personal attacks against his Conservative rival.
The Foreign Secretary said that “Boris in No10” was the only thing that mattered to his rival, in comments Mr Johnson described as “embarrassing” blue-on-blue jibes.
The issue of Britain’s departure from the EU on Oct 31 emerged as the key dividing line in the live ITV hustings event, as Mr Hunt challenged Mr Johnson to resign if he failed to deliver on his exit date promise and Mr Johnson demanded to know how long Mr Hunt would delay Brexit.
Mr Johnson also suggested Mr Hunt would leave Britain on a “hamster wheel of doom” as he claimed he would be far too negative as prime minister.
Mr Hunt said he had “no idea” what a Johnson administration would look like, adding: “Being prime minister is about telling people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.”
The two men were also divided over the issue of whether Sir Kim Darroch should remain in his job as Britain’s ambassador to Washington, with Mr Hunt saying the embattled diplomat would stay following the leaking of his disparaging comments about the Trump administration. Mr Johnson refused to make such a commitment.
Many Tory MPS had feared that head-to-head debates between the leadership candidates would only benefit Jeremy Corbyn as the contenders would tear strips off each other and weaken them before they got a chance to lead the country. Mr Hunt, who had earlier admitted that last night’s debate was his final chance to overtake the runaway favourite, wasted no time in confronting Mr Johnson about Brexit, tax and his grasp of detail.
Mr Hunt, who had spent weeks goading Mr Johnson for turning down other chances to debate with him, challenged him on his promise to get Britain out of the EU by Oct 31 “do or die”, asking him whether he would resign if it did not happen.
When Mr Johnson refused to say he would quit, Mr Hunt rounded on him, saying: “It’s not do or die that matters, it’s Boris in No10.”
Mr Johnson hit back by asking Mr Hunt how long he would delay Brexit. “How about Christmas?” he said. “Christmas any good?” Mr Hunt said he was “as keen” as Mr Johnson to leave the EU on Oct 31, saying it would make a good present for himself on his birthday, Nov 1. However he said: “No one should make a promise unless they absolutely know they can deliver.”
Both candidates were then asked to raise their hand if they were “confident” the UK could leave the EU by Oct 31. Both did so, prompting Mr Johnson to say to his rival: “I thought you said it couldn’t be done?”
Accusing Mr Johnson of being poor on details, Mr Hunt said: “Getting details wrong is fine for a newspaper columnist, but not if you’re prime minister.”
During a row about tax cuts for high earners, Mr Johnson said: “This is one of the reasons these blue-on-blue debates are so embarrassing.” Mr Hunt also attacked Mr Johnson for refusing to give direct answers: “Just answer the question for once, just tell us,” he said.
BORIS JOHNSON last night refused to commit to keeping Britain’s ambassador to Washington in his job if he becomes prime minister after Sir Kim Darroch was frozen out by Donald Trump.
The White House cancelled trade talks between Wilbur Ross, the US commerce secretary, and his counterpart Liam Fox yesterday because Sir Kim had been due to attend.
Sir Kim, who had described the Trump administration as “inept” in a leaked diplomatic cable, is considering resigning “in the national interest”, according to friends, after being left unable to do his job. However, another source told The Daily Telegraph that Sir Kim was determined to continue with “business as usual” amid the storm.
Sir Kim was also banned from a meeting between Dr Fox and the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump yesterday after Mr Trump launched a fresh onslaught in which he described him as a “pompous fool”, “wacky” and “a very stupid guy”. Mr Trump also called Theresa May “foolish” in an extraordinary series of tweets.
The row dominated the only headto-head television debate in the race for Tory leader between Mr Johnson and his rival Jeremy Hunt after the Foreign Secretary accused Mr Trump of being “disrespectful and wrong” as the diplomatic crisis rapidly escalated.
In the prime time ITV debate, Mr Hunt said that Sir Kim would still be in his post by Christmas, when he is due to retire. The Foreign Secretary refused to be drawn further, adding: “Who chooses our ambassador is a matter for the United Kingdom government and the United Kingdom prime minister.”
Mr Johnson was more nuanced, saying: “It is absolutely vital that the advice that civil servants give to ministers should not be leaked by ministers, should not be commented on if civil servants are going to feel free to give advice with the impartiality that they want.”
He said he had a good relationship with the White House, adding: “Whoever leaked that deserves to be eviscerated ... What I will say is I and I alone will decide who takes important and politically sensitive jobs such as the British ambassador to the United States.”
Theresa May, the Prime Minister, is desperate to avoid losing Sir Kim, as it would send a signal to Mr Trump and other national leaders that they could effectively pick and choose British ambassadors themselves.
Mr Trump tweeted: “The wacky Ambassador that the UK foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy. He should speak to his country, and Prime Minister May, about their failed Brexit negotiation, and not be upset with my criticism of how badly it was handled.
“I told Theresa May how to do that deal, but she went her own foolish way – was unable to get it done. A disaster! I don’t know the Ambassador but have been told he is a pompous fool.”
Mr Hunt accused Mr Johnson of prioritising “tax cuts for the rich” as he went on the attack when asked about economic policy.
He asked Mr Johnson to explain why his first major policy announcement was to raise the higher income tax rate threshold from £50,000 to £80,000.
Mr Hunt said: “I have spent my life trying to persuade people that we are not the party of the rich.”
Mr Johnson defended his plans and said he would “focus on those who are hardest pressed”, including by raising the threshold for National Insurance for low-income earners. He cited his record as London mayor in introducing measures that helped lower-income voters.
He added that he wanted to stop senior nurses, maths teachers and police officers from being dragged into the higher income tax threshold. Mr Johnson challenged Mr Hunt to say whether he agreed that middle-income earners should be paying the higher rate of tax.
However, Mr Hunt hit back, saying announcing the tax cut for higher earners first was “a mistake” and accused him of making “cuts for the rich”.
Asked by an audience member why he is focused on tax cuts instead of tackling austerity, Mr Hunt said he wanted to “grow the size of the cake” by making corporation tax cuts his priority. He said this would “boost the growth rate of our economy” and praised Mr Trump’s record in doing the same in America.
Mr Johnson said he was “absolutely right” and called for “judicious tax cuts”.
Mr Hunt accused Mr Johnson of “setting a fake deadline” that would only lead to a general election before the UK leaves the EU.
Mr Hunt told his rival that if he sticks to his pledge of “do or die” on Oct 31, he must be “prepared to take us into a general election” because the parliamentary arithmetic would need to change.
He then accused Mr Johnson of telling people “what they want to hear” and “peddling optimism”. He said: “Being prime minister is about telling people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.”
Mr Johnson responded by warning against being “totally defeatist”.
While Mr Hunt insisted he “would win over more non-conservative voters”, he pledged not to call an election until he has delivered Brexit.
Mr Johnson said he would not do a deal with the Brexit Party, adding: “I don’t believe in doing deals with any party.” He said he could deliver Brexit with the help of Conservative MPS.
Asked if they would suspend Parliament if it blocked no deal, Mr Johnson said he would not take anything off the table, while Mr Hunt ruled it out.
Mr Johnson said he would not scrap the third runway at Heathrow, but hinted he could step in if there were breaches of noise or air pollution, saying: “The bulldozers are a long time off.”
The MP for Uxbridge said he retained “the gravest reservations” about noise pollution and air quality. Mr Hunt challenged Mr Johnson to give a clear answer, saying: “If you are going to be prime minister, you have got to have to answer to those questions.
“My answer is yes – a third runway will help spread wealth around the country. We should back it.”
Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson both agreed they would not scrap Universal Credit as well as publishing a plan to deal with the social care crisis this year.
On the HS2 high speed rail line, Mr Johnson said he would review the business case, which he described as “dubious”. Mr Hunt said Britain needed the high speed link, saying it could bridge the North-south divide in the UK. “We should back it to the hilt,” he said.
Each other’s qualities
The candidates resorted to insults dressed up as compliments when asked to name a quality they most admired in each other.
Mr Johnson referenced the ability of Mr Hunt, a former Remain supporter, to “change his mind and campaign for Brexit now”.
Meanwhile, Mr Hunt accused Mr Johnson of dodging questions.
He said that he “really admires” Mr Johnson’s answers because he “puts a smile on your face and you forget what the question was”.
‘I have spent my life trying to persuade people that we are not the party of the rich’
‘Being prime minister is about telling people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear’
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt square up in the Conservative leadership contenders’ debate on ITV last night