Boris Johnson has been forced on to the defensive in a fractious five-way Tory leadership debate, coming under pressure on issues from Islamophobia to his plan to cut taxes for top earners.
The former foreign secretary remains overwhelming favourite to be Britain’s next prime minister after winning the second round of voting among Conservative MPs convincingly, with 126 votes of the 313 cast.
But in his first appearance in a televised debate during the contest, having spurned Sunday’s Channel 4 event, cracks appeared in some of his positions under scrutiny from viewers’ questions and his rivals’ replies during the BBC programme.
Asked by Abdullah, an imam from Bristol, whether he accepted that “words have consequences”, Johnson claimed his comments – such as comparing Muslim women in burqas to “letterboxes” – were sometimes taken out of context. And he referred to his Muslim great-grandfather, whom he said came to Britain because it was “a beacon of generosity and openness”.
He went on to insist that his mistaken remark that the imprisoned British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zhagari-Ratcliffe was teaching in Iran “didn’t make any difference”.
Johnson also appeared to wobble over his pledge of a tax cut for high earners, saying: “What we would bring forward is a package to help primarily the poorest people in society,” – but that he thought it was right to have an “ambition” to raise the higher rate.
The debate, presented by Emily Maitlis, was repeatedly characterised by interruptions. Michael Gove condemned Johnson’s plan to increase the threshold at which the 40p income tax rate is levied, from £50,000 to £80,000. “I think that is wrong,” Gove said.
One of the most notable moments came when all five candidates were given a scathing review by a 15-year-old climate striker named Erin, who asked them to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2025.
None agreed to do so and, asked for her reflections afterwards, Erin said none had “really impressed” her. “Climate change isn’t an issue of tomorrow, it’s an issue of today and we need to create drastic, critical action and I don’t think any of you are willing to offer that,” she told them.
Addressing her question on the environment, Johnson said he continued to have “grave concerns” about Heathrow expansion, but would not say whether he would block it as prime minister. He was also pressed by the other four contenders remaining in the race, after former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab was knocked out in the vote earlier.
As they answered a viewer’s question about the risks of a no-deal Brexit, Hunt challenged Johnson, saying: “Let me ask Boris a question: what would you say to a sheep farmer in Shropshire that I met whose business would be destroyed by 40% tariffs?…He would say, you got your dream of getting into No 10, but what about my dream to have a family business?”
Asked about hitting the 31 October deadline, one of the central promises that has won over many of the most ardent Brexiters to supporting Johnson, he saidit was “eminently feasible”.
And he stressed the importance of preparing for no deal, in order to secure a better deal.
Johnson also gave few details about how he plans to resolve the challenge of preventing a hard border in Northern Ireland, saying he believed the details should be worked out in the transition period after the UK has left.
Challenged on why the EU27 would agree to that idea, he pointed to the “solvent” of withholding the £39bn exit payment.
Rory Stewart continued his effort to distinguish himself from the other candidates, insisting that now was the wrong time for the Tories to be promising tax cuts.
“I’m going to be very straight with people: I don’t think this is the right time to be cutting taxes,” he said. “Our country is suffering huge pressures on public services.”
Stewart only joined the cabinet in May, and began the contest as the underdog – but received 37 votes on Tuesday, after picking up many of those MPs who backed the health secretary, Matt Hancock, in last week’s first round of voting.
Gove, who came third with 41, presented himself as the most convincing Brexiter, saying he was the first on the five-man panel to advocate leaving the EU, and “because I started this, I will finish it”.
Sajid Javid, who only just scraped the 33 votes necessary to stay in the contest for another 24 hours, is likely to come under pressure to fold his campaign.
But a spokesman for the home secretary insisted: “He’s had a great four days, picked up some votes today, and we’ll fight on.”
And Javid scored one of the few clear victories during the debate, when he asked his four rivals whether they would all agree to commission an independent review of Islamophobia in the Conservative party, to which they all said yes.
But Abdullah later tweeted expressing his disappointment with the Tory hopefuls’ “deluded” responses to his question about Islamophobia.
He said: “What I got as a response was nothing short of disappointing and deluded: Boris Johnson forgot my name, spoke about his great-grandfather and about Iran. Gove used the opportunity to have a dig at Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy Hunt used it as a chance to say he can’t be racist because he has an immigrant wife and Rory Stewart forgot that this is also our country.”
He said Javid winning the concession over the review was “the only positive from the debate”.
But many of the moderate Tories who had rallied behind Stewart remain deeply sceptical about whether Johnson will stick to the one-nation valueshe has stressed during his leadership pitch, once installed in Downing Street.
Hunt’s team had earlier rejected rumours circulating in Westminster that Johnson’s outriders had been urging colleagues to lend their votes to Hunt because he was their preferred opponent.
Johnson has the former defence secretary Gavin Williamson and the former Tory party chair Grant Schapps working Westminster on his behalf.
He has won over hard Brexiters by promising to take Britain out of the EU by 31 October “with or without a deal”, but has also played up his one-nation credentials to appeal to his party’s liberal wing.
MPs will vote again on Wednesday, and if necessary on Thursday, until the field is narrowed down to just two names, which will then be offered to Conservative members in a postal ballot.
The result will be announced in the week beginning 22 July.