Jeremy Hunt has warned that the Tories will be “annihilated” in an early general election, in an attack on Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy.
The foreign secretary issued the thinly-veiled criticism of his rival’s “empty rhetoric” over a no-deal Brexit, which he warned would trigger a general election and let Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.
Mr Hunt has swung to the forefront of the contest with the surprise backing of cabinet Brexiteer Penny Mordaunt, who boosted his Eurosceptic credentials by saying she “trusts” him to deliver on Brexit.
Her endorsement comes after Amber Rudd, the pro-EU work and pensions secretary, threw her weight behind Mr Hunt’s campaign – bolstering his chances of being Mr Johnson’s primary challenger.
It comes on a busy day in Westminster as Matt Hancock, Esther McVey, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove were all set to officially launch their bids.
Speaking at his campaign launch, Mr Hunt took a swipe at Mr Johnson, who has advocated leaving the EU on 31 October with or without a Brexit deal.
Mr Hunt said: “Without a deal, any prime minister who promised to leave by a certain date would have to call a general election to change the parliamentary arithmetic.
“An election we would lose badly. Because the lessons of the European and Peterborough elections are clear. If we fight an election before delivering Brexit, we will be annihilated.
“Squeezed by the Brexit Party on the right and the Lib Dems on the left, we simply allow Labour through the middle.”
Mr Hunt said the country was facing a “constitutional crisis” and urged Tories to “get real”.
He said: “This extremely serious moment calls for an experienced, serious leader.
“We need the art of tough negotiation, not the art of empty rhetoric.
“And faced with bad choices, we need a prime minister who can negotiate some better choices.”
Mr Hunt also told the audience that no government he leads will change the law on abortion, despite admitting he personally believes the legal time limit should be halved to 12 weeks.
He also said he had never committed a crime, as his rival Michael Gove’s campaign stalled amid controversy over his cocaine use when he was working as a journalist.
Elsewhere, Mr Raab tried to paint himself as “the conviction Brexiteer with a plan” and said his rivals were only offering “bluff and bluster”.
The former Brexit secretary, who has previously suggested suspending parliament to force through a no-deal, vowed he would break from the EU by 31 October, even without a deal.
Mr Hancock, the health secretary, ruled out proroguing parliament in order to ensure the UK leaves the EU on October 31 and said no-deal would not get through the Commons.
He has previously set out a Brexit delivery plan to leave by October 31, including establishing an Irish border council, made up of UK and Irish officials, to prevent the return of a hard border and time-limiting the backstop.
Ms McVey, a hardline Brexiteer, said the Brexit negotiations to date had been a “national embarrassment”.
Criticising Theresa May’s efforts she said: “As far as I’m concerned there could have been literally any outcome with her at the helm, apart from the one we wanted.
“Because she was not going to leave the EU without a deal. At the very least something that could be described as EU lite. But the way I was looking at it, it was EU watertight.
“We could have ended up being in there (the EU) and having no say.”
Nominations close at 5pm for candidates for the first round of voting by Tory MPs. The 11 candidates must secure at least eight nominations to get on the ballot paper.