Several candidates vying to replace British Prime Minister Theresa May have turned their fire on favourite Boris Johnson, questioning his pledge to leave the EU by the end of October no matter what.
With former London mayor and foreign minister Johnson keeping a low profile, the other hopefuls have used the airwaves to present their cases for the governing Conservative Party leadership.
At a Channel 4 debate, Johnson’s absence was marked by an empty lecturn. That left five other candidates to argue over who was best placed to deliver Brexit in testy exchanges described by International Development Minister Rory Stewart as a competition of “machismo”.
Johnson secured a large lead in the first round of voting by Conservative lawmakers and his team hopes for an increased share this week in the second.
However, candidate after candidate on Sunday questioned his ability to navigate Britain’s departure from the EU, saying his pledge to leave on October 31 was nigh on impossible and would set Britain on track for a no-deal Brexit.
“The difference between me and Boris is that I would try for a deal,” said Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt, who is second place in the leadership contest.
“I am not going to create a set of circumstances that makes it all but impossible to get a deal because I think we should be offering the country some better choices,” he told the BBC.
He later poked fun at Johnson, using the television debate to ask “Where is Boris?”
“If his team won’t allow him out to debate with five pretty friendly colleagues how is he going to fare with 27 European countries? He should be here to answer that very question.”
One of Hunt’s supporters, Work and Pensions Minister Amber Rudd, went further, making a thinly veiled criticism of what she described as some candidates’ “do or die approach” to Brexit which did not consider potential job losses.
Brexit is dominating the Conservative leadership race, with many of the candidates, albeit some of them reluctantly, saying they would lead the nation out without a deal.
Rory Stewart, who wants to rule out a no-deal Brexit, took issue with Johnson’s argument that the only way to get an improved deal from the EU was to prepare for leaving without an agreement and using that as leverage.
“They are not scared of it because it is not a credible threat. The European Union knows no deal cannot get through parliament,” he told the BBC.
“How is Boris going to deliver Brexit, how? … I don’t even know what he believes. He won’t talk to me, he won’t talk to you, he won’t talk to the public. We want to know what he believes,” the minister said.