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Boris Johnson’s bid for the UK Tory leadership has received a new boost with the backing of a former rival, Health Secretary Matt Hancock , who pulled out of the contest last week.

His endorsement came after Mr.Johnson was criticised for failing to appear in the first of the televised leadership debates staged by Britain’s Channel 4 on Sunday evening.

Writing in The Times, Mr Hancock said: “I’m backing Boris Johnson as the best candidate to unite the Conservative party, so we can deliver Brexit and then unite the country behind an open, ambitious, forward-looking agenda, delivered with the energy that gets stuff done.”

He said he believed Mr Johnson had a “unique personality” which would bring the Tories together behind a Brexit deal.

However, it is far from clear whether the 20 MPs who supported Mr Hancock in the first ballot will now follow him in backing Mr Johnson.

Mr Johnson, who has been under fire over his reluctance to face media scrutiny, is likely to face further criticism after refusing to take part in a hustings event on Monday organised by political journalists at Westminster.

Instead he chose to use his column in The Daily Telegraph to announce plans to extend full-fibre broadband to every home in the country within five years, nine years ahead of the Government’s 2033 target.

“A fast internet connection is not some metropolitan luxury. It is an indispensable tool of modern life,” he said.

“It is therefore a disgrace that this country should suffer from a deep digital divide, so that many rural areas and towns are simply left behind.”

Mr Johnson has said he will take part in a BBC debate on Tuesday, after the second round of voting, when the field of candidates will have been whittled down further.

However he was taunted about his absence at Sunday’s event by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt who said it raised questions about his ability to take on the job of prime minister.

“Where is Boris? If his team won’t allow him out with five pretty friendly colleagues, how is is he going to fare with 27 European countries?” he said.