The race to become Prime Minister got personal yesterday as Tory hopefuls took aim at each other less than 24 hours after Theresa May’s decision to quit.
Minister Rory Stewart took a swipe at bookies’ favourite Boris Johnson over his stance on a possible no-deal Brexit and sometimes fraught relationship with the truth.
Johnson is the frontrunner to replace Theresa May, with bookmakers offering even odds on him becoming Prime Minister and Stewart at 16-1.
But in a tweet yesterday afternoon, Mr Stewart said: “The star name will not always be the best choice.”
He added that there may be times “when Jiminy Cricket would make a better leader than Pinocchio”.
Children’s book character Pinocchio is famous for his nose growing when he tells lies, while Jiminy Cricket is his conscience.
Mr Johnson was accused of misleading voters during the EU referendum by pledging to claw back £350 million a week from Brussels for the NHS.
Despite being the frontrunner to be the Tories’ next leader, he remains unpopular with many of his colleagues.
The former foreign secretary told an economic conference in Switzerland on Friday that Britain would leave the EU by the end of October “deal or no deal” and that “the way to get a good deal is to prepare for a no deal”.
Mr Stewart, one of five candidates for the leadership so far, suggested the former London mayor may have misled fellow Tory MPs on his position on Britain exiting the EU.
The International Development Secretary, who voted for Remain in the 2016 referendum, said: “I could not serve in a government whose policy was to push this country into a no-deal Brexit. I could not serve with Boris Johnson.
“I spoke to Boris, I suppose, about two weeks ago about this and I thought at the time he had assured me that he wouldn’t push for a no-deal Brexit. So, we had a conversation about 20, 25 minutes and I left the room reassured by him that he wouldn’t do this. But, it now seems that he is coming out for a no-deal Brexit.”
But former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith described Penrith MP Mr Stewart’s remarks as “really stupid”.
He said: “The point about leadership elections is you let others have a chance to vote and like all democratic elections you unite behind whoever wins.”
Amber Rudd ruled herself out of the running and said she was concerned about a leader who was “too enthusiastic” about a no-deal Brexit.
The Work and Pensions Secretary said: “It is very important that whoever takes this on looks for a solution and tries to work to find where the majority of the House (of Commons) is.”
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox refused to rule himself out as a candidate.
Asked if he would stand, Mr Fox told the BBC: “Well, I don’t think it’s likely to happen, but, as you say, it’s an unusual contest.”
He said he wanted a deal with the EU when Britain left.
“But, I think that it is possible, and probably increasingly likely now, that we could leave without a deal because I think there’s a limited patience from the European Union with Britain’s constant delay.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock threw his hat in the ring yesterday, warning against the next Prime Minister holding an early General Election to end the stalemate over Brexit.
Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, also confirmed he’s running, as did Esther McVey, the former work and pensions secretary.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said Labour would force a Commons no-confidence vote in the new Prime Minister when they take office.
He said: “We believe any incoming prime minister in these circumstances should go to the country and seek a mandate.”
In a tearful statement outside Number 10 on Friday, Theresa May said she would resign as party leader on June 7, but would continue as PM while a leadership contest took place.
Under Tory party rules, it could be the end of July before a new leader is chosen.
The candidates will be whittled down to two by MPs, and the party’s 124,000 membership will decide on the winner.
Meanwhile, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who had been tipped as a future Prime Minister, announced on Twitter yesterday that she has been readopted as her party’s candidate for the Edinburgh Central seat at the 2021 Scottish Parliament election.