Johnson accused of cowardice as he dodges public scrutiny
Boris Johnson has been accused of “not having the guts to face the people” in the Conservative leadership race, coming under fire for dodging interviews and refusing to confirm his participation in a BBC debate with other candidates.
Johnson, the clear frontrunner with MPs and the Tory membership, was implicitly criticized by several of his rivals who said the race must put all the candidates under proper scrutiny, the Guardian reported.
The former foreign secretary is expected to launch his campaign today, when he faces some media questioning. However, he has refused to say whether he will appear on a televised hustings next Tuesday and has avoided broadcast interviews.
All 10 candidates have been invited to the BBC debate, with Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart, Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom and Mark Harper having all confirmed to the Guardian that they would take part.
If Johnson takes questions at his campaign launch, he is likely to be asked about his admission of having taken cocaine at university, after the controversy over Gove’s use of class-A drugs.
Johnson has done just one newspaper interview, with the Sunday Times, and no major broadcast interviews since the campaign began, and has only made paid corporate appearances in Manchester and Switzerland. His main policy announcements have been made through his Daily Telegraph columns, for which he is also paid.
Several of the other candidates appeared to criticize Johnson for apparently trying to get through the next few weeks of voting among MPs without too much scrutiny of his policies and views.
Harper, one of the outsiders, said all candidates must be open to public questioning and scrutiny, and that any other route would risk a similar situation to the 2017 general election, when Theresa May’s campaign style stumbled.
“If you want to lead this country, you have to be prepared to set out your stall,” he said.
“I think you have to open yourself up to questioning and be prepared to level with people and be questioned about it. We had a general election campaign two years ago and the prime minister demonstrated she was not as good at campaigning as we all thought she would be.”
Hancock added, “I certainly think that everybody who puts their name forward to be prime minister should be open to scrutiny, should be accountable.
“Everybody should participate in the proposed TV debates. And I think we’ve got to ask the question: why not? I’ve got nothing to hide and that’s why I am here.”
David Lammy, a Labor MP who supports the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum, criticized Johnson for wanting to “force a destructive no deal on our country, when he doesn’t have the guts to face the people”.
“His reluctance to appear in public or to answer questions about his dangerous Brexit proposals suggests he wants to win this contest by speaking only to the membership of the Conservative Party rather than the other 65 million people of the United Kingdom who will have to live [with] the consequences,” Lammy said.
“Saying nothing, other than through a lucrative column in the Telegraph, is no way for a potential prime minister to conduct themselves. The country is crying out for leadership, not cowardice.”
Johnson’s strategy does not appear to have harmed his chances with MPs. He won several more high-profile backers on Tuesday, with the former contender Kit Malthouse and former leader Iain Duncan Smith both supporting him. He now has at least 65 MPs behind him, making it very likely he will make the shortlist of two candidates to be put to a vote of the membership.
The controversy came as Leadsom launched her campaign, insisting that parliament would be unable to block a no-deal Brexit and that the October 31 deadline was a “hard red line” for her.
Leadsom, who resigned as the leader of the Commons last month, claimed her plans for a “managed Brexit” would be likely to win over both MPs and the EU27 – but even if MPs objected, they would not be able to force the government to extend article 50.
While MPs forced May’s hand in March to ask for an extension, Leadsom said, “I do not think that parliament actually has the ability to prevent us leaving at the end of October.”
In contrast, Hancock refused to rule out extending Britain’s membership of the EU beyond October, but insisted he could secure a time limit to the backstop from the EU that would pass parliament.
The health secretary said his rival candidates who had pledged to leave – deal or no deal – by October 31 were making false promises because parliament would block any no-deal departure.
He said the outcome would be a general election, which would be a “catastrophe for my party and extremely damaging for the country”.
Hancock claimed his plan for renegotiation was detailed, “unlike some of the other candidates”, and would involve first putting a deal to parliament that included a backstop with a time limit, to prove to the EU27 that it could pass. He would then restart the negotiations.
The backstop is a device intended to ensure there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, even if no formal deal can be reached on trade and security arrangements.
Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today program his plan had the support of David Lidington, the de facto deputy prime minister, and that Brussels was open to the change.
“It is eminently deliverable by October 31. Once you have a majority in the House of Commons things can move quickly,” he said.
All the leadership candidates will take part in private hustings before the vote, with the first round taking place on Tuesday night.
Defending Johnson, the former defense secretary Michael Fallon said he hoped the contest would not focus on personalities.
“There’s a wide range of candidates but I hope we can agree to leave some of the personal stuff out of this … in the end we have all got to rally round, support the new prime minister, bring the party together again.”