Boris Johnson has backed away from contentious plans for tax cuts for the rich and softened his stance on a no-deal Brexit as he came under assault in his first TV debate of the Conservative leadership campaign.
The runaway favourite to succeed Theresa May as prime minister was put on the spot by insurgent candidate Rory Stewart, who accused Mr Johnson and his other rivals of lacking honesty about the realities of Brexit and making promises running into tens of billions of pounds which they could not keep.
The former foreign secretary – who was branded a “submarine” for ducking the first TV showdown on Sunday – came under fire in a sometimes fractious debate for his proposal to raise the thresholds for the top rate of income tax, handing £9.6bn a year to the highest-earning households.
Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, who took second place behind Mr Johnson in the second round of MPs’ voting on Tuesday, warned: “People say we are the party of the rich. We must never fall into the trap of doing tax cuts for the rich.”
As he came under pressure on his plans, Mr Johnson downgraded the higher-rate threshold hike to an “ambition” which was open to “debate”. And he announced that he also wanted to help the low paid by lifting the level at which they start to pay national insurance.
He stuck to his position that the UK must leave the European Union by 31 October, warning of “catastrophic” consequences for voter trust in politics if the Conservative government “kicked the can down the road” again.
But he repeatedly stressed that he did not want a “disorderly” no-deal Brexit, and told one member of the public who voiced fears for her family’s jobs: “We are going to make sure that we come out on terms that protect the UK and protect the EU as well.”
Mr Hunt urged him to consider the consequences of no deal for a farmer facing the threat of 40 per cent tariffs on lamb: “He would look at you and say ‘Boris, you got your dream, you went to No 10, but you destroyed my dream, which is a family business’.”
The foreign secretary said he was willing to accept a no-deal outcome if the only alternative was remaining in the EU. But he said Mr Johnson was wrong to insist on an absolute deadline of 31 October.
Mr Stewart admitted he was making himself unpopular with the Conservative members who will select Ms May’s successor in a postal ballot next month, as he ruled out both a no-deal Brexit and tax cuts.
“If I were lucky enough to be your prime minister, I am committed that there would never be a no deal,” he said. “It is unnecessary, it is damaging. It is not even a credible threat.”
Turning his fire on his rivals’ claims that they could cut taxes and devise a new deal to take the UK out of the EU, Mr Stewart said: “I believe that the way we get everybody back and reunify the country is being honest and realistic.
“The thing that slightly depresses me in this debate is that everybody I feel is promising things. They are promising to get a new deal from Brussels, which they are not going to get. They are promising to get a no deal through parliament, which they can’t deliver. And they are now promising cumulatively altogether nearly £84bn worth of tax cuts.
“I’m going to be very straight with people. I don’t think this is the time to be cutting taxes … I would be spending the money not on tax cuts but on investing in our public services.”
Mr Stewart shocked Westminster by almost doubling his tally of votes to shoot into fourth place on 37, behind Mr Johnson on 126, Mr Hunt on 46 and Michael Gove on 41. Hardline Brexiteer Dominic Raab was knocked out after amassing the support of just 30 MPs, while Sajid Javid, the home secretary, scraped through by hitting the minimum of 33 votes to remain in the contest. A third round will eliminate another contender on Wednesday, and MPs are expected the following day to whittle the field down to a shortlist of two candidates who will go to a postal ballot of Tory members.
Mr Gove said he would be willing to extend Brexit talks by “days or weeks” past the Halloween deadline in order to secure a good deal. He accepted a no-deal Brexit would “create some economic turbulence” which would cause suffering, but said that the government had to get the UK out of the EU to honour the 2016 referendum vote.
He accused Mr Stewart of offering MPs “the same cold porridge for a fourth time” after the international development secretary said that Ms May’s thrice-rejected withdrawal agreement was the best Brussels would offer.
Carmela, a questioner from Southampton, who asked the would-be leaders whether they could really contemplate a no-deal Brexit, told them: “I am not reassured at all, I’m really concerned about the future for my children and I’m worried about my husband’s job. No one can give a real answer to what will happen if we have a no deal.”
© GettyMr Johnson, who previously said he would lie down in front of bulldozers to stop Heathrow expansion, appeared to be paving the way for a U-turn, saying only that he had “grave reservations” on air quality and noise.
And he was forced say he was “sorry” for offence caused by his comparison of Muslim women in burkas with “letterboxes”, though he insisted that his incorrect comments about jailed British-Iranian mother had not made “any difference” to her case.
Mr Javid won the assent of all the other contenders for his proposal for an independent inquiry into allegations of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party.