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Tory leadership race: Johnson absent as candidates face questions

Tory leadership candidates

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Conservative leadership contenders have faced further questions about Brexit and their personal beliefs ahead of Tuesday’s second ballot of MPs.

Boris Johnson skipped the hustings of Westminster journalists, having also missed Sunday’s Channel 4 TV debate.

Rory Stewart would not say how he would vote if there was another referendum, but having one would be a “failure”.

Dominic Raab suggested the current “paralysing uncertainty” was worse than a no-deal exit from the EU.

Mr Johnson, former foreign secretary, is the clear frontrunner in the race after topping the first ballot with 114 votes.

On Monday, he got a fresh boost after he endorsed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock – who pulled out after coming sixth in last week’s vote.

But Mr Johnson’s low visibility in the campaign so far continues to attract criticism from his rivals and their supporters.

Justice Secretary David Gauke, who is supporting Mr Stewart, said the public was “entitled” to expect every candidate to subject themselves to rigorous scrutiny.

“At the moment Boris Johnson is not doing that,” he told BBC News.

He also accused Mr Johnson of making a series of pledges to cut tax or spend more – via his newspaper column – without answering the question “where is the money coming from?”

Mr Johnson has agreed to take part in a BBC TV debate after Tuesday’s ballot while he is also expected to attend a hustings organised by the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers later.

Media captionMoments you may have missed from the Tory leadership TV debate

The five remaining candidates – also including Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid – were grilled by lobby journalists on Monday morning in a closed-door session.

Ahead of the hustings, Mr Hunt urged Mr Johnson to show “Churchillian spirit” and turn up. Mr Raab started his hustings slot by describing the event as an “essential gauntlet” in an apparent dig at his erstwhile rival.

Mr Gove, who famously fell out with Mr Johnson after the 2016 referendum, said “Boris could be a good prime minister, but I think i could be a better one.”

‘Unlock’ support

Mr Raab defended his backing for the UK to leave the EU on 31 October with or without a deal – saying the “biggest risk is the paralysing uncertainty” currently afflicting the UK.

Mr Stewart said he believed Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement could be the basis of a “moderate, pragmatic” Brexit despite being rejected by MPs three times.

He said his new approach to explaining and promoting the deal agreed with the EU could “unlock” up to a dozen Tory MPs, after which he would seek Labour backing.

If the parliamentary deadlock could not be broken, he said his plan B was to get 500 or so members of the public to decide how to proceed in a citizens’ assembly.

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He said he did not believe the assembly would come out in favour of another Brexit referendum, which he said would be “catastrophic”.

Mr Javid warned against his rivals turning on each other, saying that the only winners of a “vicious” debate would be Labour.

Asked whether he trusted Boris Johnson, he replied yes but joked that he might not appoint him as foreign secretary in his cabinet if he won power – a reference to Mr Johnson’s much-criticised tenure in the Foreign Office.

The home secretary conceded he was not the most confident orator in the field.

“I didn’t go to the debating societies at Oxford or other places. But I am trying to communicate in the best way I can.”

Mr Hunt said the central question about delivering Brexit was “who” was going to be doing the negotiating.

The BBC’s political correspondent Chris Mason said Mr Hunt talked about different variations of the UK leaving the EU without a legal agreement.

He characterised these as a “hostile no deal”, where there was little or no co-operation of any kind, or one more accommodating between the two sides.

Among the more unusual questions fielded, Mr Stewart – a former solider and diplomat – was asked whether he ever worked for MI6, to which he replied no.

And Mr Hunt was asked whether he believed in God, to which he said yes.

Tory leadership race: Johnson absent as candidates face questions}

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