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Tory leadership: Johnson and Hunt trade blows over Brexit and Trump

Tory leadership: Johnson and Hunt trade blows over Brexit and Trump

  • 9 July 2019
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Media captionTory leadership TV debate: Johnson v Hunt on Brexit date

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have clashed on Brexit and UK relations with Donald Trump in a lively and occasionally bad-tempered TV debate.

Mr Hunt accused his rival of not being willing to "put his neck on the line" by saying he would quit as PM if he did not hit the 31 October deadline.

Mr Johnson said he admired his rival's ability "to change his mind" so often - a dig at the fact Mr Hunt voted Remain.

Mr Johnson declined to condemn Mr Trump for his response to the emails row.

He refused to confirm whether he would keep the UK's top diplomat in the US, Sir Kim Darroch, in his post until December, when he is due to retire, after Mr Trump said he was no longer prepared to deal with him.

However, he insisted that only he, as prime minister, would take "important and politically sensitive" decisions such as who should represent the UK in the US.

'Not do or die'

During the first head-to-head debate of the campaign, the two men clashed over their different Brexit strategies, leadership styles and why they were equipped to be prime minister.

The foreign secretary immediately went on the attack in the opening exchanges, pressing his rival on whether he would quit if he failed to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October.

He said by failing to answer the question, Mr Johnson - who previously said the deadline was a "do or die" issue for him - showed he was motivated by personal ambition not leadership.

"It is not do or die," Mr Hunt said. "It is Boris in Number 10 that matters."

Accusing his rival of not being straight with the electorate, he said "being prime minister is about telling people what they need to hear not what they want to hear".

'Defeatist'

Mr Johnson said it was clear his rival was "not absolutely committed" to the deadline himself, calling him "defeatist".

He urged Mr Hunt to guarantee that Brexit would happen by Christmas, adding that the EU would not take a "papier mache deadline" seriously.

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"If we are going to have a 31 October deadline, we must stick to it," he said. "The EU will understand we are ready and will give us the deal we need."

"I don't want to hold out to the EU the prospect that they might encourage my resignation by refusing to agree a deal," he added. "I think it is extraordinary we should be telling the British electorate we are willing to kick the can down the road.

"I would like to know how many more days my opponent would be willing to delay."

Both men have said they would be prepared to leave the EU without a deal, but Mr Johnson has been far more relaxed about the impact that could have.

Mr Hunt suggested his rival was "minimising the risk of a no-deal Brexit" and "peddling optimism", but Mr Johnson said the UK had had a "bellyful of pessimism" and the UK could look forward to a bright future outside the EU.

The pair also disagreed over whether they might be prepared to suspend Parliament to force through a no-deal exit - so-called prorogation.

While Mr Hunt categorically ruled this out, Mr Johnson said he would "not take anything off the table".

Trump relations

On the escalating diplomatic row with the US, Mr Hunt said the President's criticism of Sir Kim Darroch had been ill-judged.

He said he would, if he became PM, not be forced into recalling the diplomat early.

Mr Johnson said the US president had been "dragged into a political row" not of his making, and suggested his outburst on Twitter, in which he called Sir Kim a "pompous fool", had "not necessarily been the right thing to do".

But he declined to comment on Sir Kim's future, only asking Mr Hunt to rule out "extending his term out of sympathy".

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Earlier in the day during a campaign visit, asked whether Mr Trump was right to attack Mrs May and the way talks with the EU have been handled, Mr Johnson declined to criticise the president, instead replying: "Myself, I have said some pretty critical things about the Brexit negotiations so far and that's one of the reasons I'm standing."

However, Jeremy Hunt later described the president's comments as "disrespectful and wrong to our prime minister and my country".

Party members are voting on who should succeed Theresa May, with the winner and next PM to be revealed on 23 July.

The 160,000 or so Conservative members eligible to take part have already begun voting by post, after ballot papers started arriving at people's homes last week.

It will be the first time a sitting prime minister has been chosen by party members.

Apart from Brexit there's been precious little talk so far in this contest about how Britain will run its affairs with the rest of the world. That changed tonight given the enormous controversy over these leaked emails.

It's Jeremy Hunt, normally seen as the more cautious of the two men, who's speaking much more plainly and directly to Donald Trump on the matter, while Boris Johnson has said only that he's not embarrassed about being close to the White House.

More broadly, this is all a reminder of how tricky and sensitive the crucial relationship with the US is, and of the challenge that whoever enters No 10 faces in dealing with a president who seems to love stirring up controversy.

The show, entitled Britain's Next Prime Minister: The ITV Debate, was hosted by journalist Julie Etchingham in front of a studio audience of 200 people at MediaCityUK in Salford.

After short opening statements, the two men faced questions from ITV viewers submitted in advance and selected by the broadcaster.

Mr Johnson, the former Mayor of London, is regarded as the clear frontrunner in the race, having won the support of more than 50% of Tory MPs in the first phase of the contest.

Mr Hunt, the current foreign secretary, has in recent days won the endorsements of former leaders Sir John Major and Lord Hague.