Tory leadership rivals Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt clashed over Brexit, US President Donald Trump and economic policies during their first head-to-head TV debate on Tuesday
The pair are the final two contenders aiming to replace Theresa May as party leader and prime minister.
As the debate began, Johnson said it was absolutely vital for the UK to come out of the EU on October 31, the current deadline for Brexit.
“I’m more likely to get us out by October 31 because I have a plan,” Hunt responded.
Johnson refused to answer a question from his rival on whether he would resign if the UK does not leave the EU by that date.
“I think it is very, very important not to envisage any circumstances in which we would fail to come out of the EU on October 31. 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 said.
Asked whether a general election was inevitable, Hunt said: “I don’t want an election until we deliver Brexit.”
Johnson argued that not delivering Brexit on October 31 was how to lose an election.
Hunt said he would not shut down Parliament to get Brexit done, while Johnson refused to rule anything out at this stage in the negotiations.
He did, however, rule out an alliance with the Brexit Party. “I don’t believe in doing a deal with any party,” the favourite of the polls said.
Dealing with Trump
The two contenders expressed differing views on how to deal with US President Donald Trump amid a leaked memos scandal.
Ahead of the debate on Tuesday, Hunt challenged Trump over his criticisms of the British ambassador to Washington whose confidential comments on Trump were leaked.
Hunt said if he becomes Prime Minister, the ambassador, Kim Darroch, would remain in his post. He reiterated his position during the debate.
Asked whether Ambassador Darroch would keep his job if he became Prime Minister, Johnson declined to offer the same guarantee and just said he and alone would make such a decision.
“I have a very good relationship with the White House,” Johnson said, before emphasizing the importance of the special relationship.
Who won the debate?
According to an informal Twitter poll conducted by an ITV journalist after the debate, 64% of respondents said Jeremy Hunt had won.
Robert Peston, a political editor at ITV, noted that Hunt had made Johnson “look uncomfortable briefly, especially with his challenges on whether he would resign if he fails to deliver Brexit on 31 October.”
“But @BorisJohnson’s more Brexity rhetoric will appeal to many Tory members,” he added.