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Tory leadership debate cancelled because Boris Johnson refuses to take part

The Independent logo The Independent 24/06/2019 Adam Forrest
Jeremy Hunt et al. looking at the camera © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

The televised Tory leadership debate has been cancelled because Boris Johnson refuses to take part, Sky News has announced.

In a development that could represent a fresh blow to the frontrunner’s hopes of becoming prime minister, the broadcaster said he had “so far declined the invitation” to go head to head with rival Jeremy Hunt - who has accused his opponent of “bottling it”.

A spokesman said: “Sky News has been planning to hold a debate tomorrow between the two remaining candidates in the Conservative leadership election. Jeremy Hunt has agreed to take part but Boris Johnson has so far declined the invitation.

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“We stand ready to host a debate tomorrow evening if both candidates make themselves available. Without both candidates, tomorrow's debate will not take place. But we will reissue our invitation for Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson to debate live on Sky News next Monday, July 1.”

Mr Hunt has urged his rival not to be “a coward” about facing public scrutiny. The foreign secretary also urged the BBC to stage a head-to-head television debate within the next two weeks before ballot papers go out to Tory members.

The challenger used an article in The Times to criticise his rival's campaign, calling on him to face more questions from the media. “So don’t be a coward Boris, man up and show the nation you can cope with the intense scrutiny the most difficult job in the country will involve.”

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It comes as Mr Johnson faces pressure to answer questions about the police being called out to the home he shares with partner Carrie Symonds. The candidate – widely assumed to be the frontrunner a week ago – has also suffered a major poll slump following the loud altercation with his girlfriend.

Among all voters in the latest Survation survey, 36 per cent backed Mr Johnson and just 28 per cent supported Mr Hunt before the bust up, but the second survey put Mr Johnson on 29 per cent and Mr Hunt in the lead on 32 per cent. His lead among Tory voters has more than halved since the incident.

Mr Johnson repeatedly refused to answer questions about the domestic row during a flustered exchange with Iain Dale at a hustings event in Birmingham on Saturday. “I don’t think they want to hear about that kind of thing,” the former foreign secretary claimed.

Mr Hunt sidestepped questions this morning about whether Mr Johnson was a fit person to be prime minister, but said he still needed to earn the trust of voters.

“The way to earn that trust with Conservative Party members and with the country is to subject yourself to scrutiny, to answer questions about what you actually want to do,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Watch: 'Class War' activists protest outside Boris Johnson's home (ITN News)

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“It is very disrespectful to say that you are not going to do any head-to-head debates, any tough media interviews, for the next two weeks,” he added. “I hope the BBC will have a proper debate in the next two weeks. I hope that if Boris doesn’t turn up they will have an empty chair.”

Mr Johnson’s supporters have lined up to defend him over the domestic incident which saw officers called to the home. Jacob Rees-Mogg hit out at “Corbynista curtain-twitchers” over the row.

Tory MP Nadine Dorries said she had spoken to Mr Johnson and Ms Symonds. “I am totally stunned at the level of harassment they have had to endure,” she said, describing the couple as “together, strong and united”.

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