Michael Gove has issued a personal attack on his Tory leadership rival Boris Johnson in a bid to move attention away from his cocaine admission, as 10 candidates were nominated to go through to the first round of voting.
The Environment Secretary urged the former foreign secretary not to pull out of the race – in a reference to him quitting in the 2016 battle – and criticised the frontrunner’s tax pledges.
Mr Gove said he anticipated he would be in the final two alongside Mr Johnson, and that he would tell him: “Whatever you do, don’t pull out. I know you have before and I know you may not believe in your heart that you can do it, but the Conservative Party membership deserve a choice.”
He also vowed to never use the tax and benefits system to “give the already wealthy another tax cut” – in an apparent dig at Mr Johnson, who has signalled a plan to slash the higher rate of income tax for people earning more than £50,000.
Mr Gove insisted he was in the race to win it despite calls for him to withdraw over his cocaine admission, which cast a shadow over his campaign launch on Monday.
He later denied that he was making a sexual innuendo when talking about Mr Johnson, telling reporters: “Some people have a lot more imagination than I have.”
Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s campaign was bolstered by the backing of two Cabinet ministers – influential Remain supporter Amber Rudd and prominent Brexiteer Penny Mordaunt.
Mr Hunt positioned himself as a “serious leader” and warned that the Tories would be “annihilated” if they fight a general election before delivering Brexit.
Other contenders – including Andrea Leadsom, Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart, Mark Harper and Mr Johnson – are expected to launch their campaigns later this week.
The MPs – who each had the backing of at least eight of their colleagues – will need at least 17 votes to get through the first ballot on Thursday – while the candidate with the lowest votes will be eliminated.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledged to increase the national living wage to more than £10 an hour, and said he would reduce taxes on working people “when we can afford it”.
Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab spelled out his desire to break from the EU by October 31 even without a deal if necessary, and called for a “generational change in leadership”.
While Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey promised public sector workers a pay rise and vowed to increase police spending and boost funding for education as she set out her vision for the country.
She told the Eurosceptic Bruges Group: “My clear agenda is to deliver Brexit on the 31st of October and then we must unite the country, and then unite our party too.”
The 11 declared candidates became 10 just before the announcement as former minister Sam Gyimah said it had been a “tremendous privilege” to be able to make the case for a second referendum in the campaign, but had reached the conclusion that “there simply has not been enough time to build sufficient support, and I have decided to step back”.
“My purpose in campaigning for a solution to break the deadlock, and bringing new ideas to help my party win over modern Britain, will not change,” he said in a statement.
“I wish all the contenders the very best at this challenging time as they make the case to take our country forward.”