Conservative leadership contender Rory Stewart has launched a furious broadside at rival Boris Johnson, accusing the former foreign secretary of not being honest about his Brexit plans and challenging him to rule out suspending parliament to force no deal through.
Speaking to The Independent, Stewart said the leadership front-runner was trying to “out-Farage Farage” with an undeliverable plan to renegotiate Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement which was designed to usher in no-deal Brexit but would instead trigger a disastrous general election.
And he blasted Johnson’s “swaggering machismo” over Brexit, which he said risked poisoning the UK’s relations with Europe.
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The verbal assault came ahead of the formal launch of the contest to replace Ms May at No 10, with the official line-up of candidates to be confirmed after nominations close on Monday.
Previously-fancied Michael Gove found his campaign mired in controversy over his admission of past cocaine use, with the environment secretary forced to fend off allegations of hypocrisy and deny having lied on security forms when entering parliament and travelling to the US. He dismissed as “foolish” suggestions that he might be barred from going to the US as prime minister.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson – who picked up backing from cabinet ministers Chris Grayling and Alun Cairns and former Tory deputy chair James Cleverly – broke his campaign silence with a Sunday Times interview in which he said he would withhold Britain’s £39 billion Brexit divorce bill until Brussels agreed better terms for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
The threat brought an immediate response from France, where a source close to President Emmanuel Macron said it would be regarded as “a failure of international commitments equivalent to a sovereign debt default” – something that could send the UK’s credit rating tumbling.
The runaway favourite is promising to take Britain out of the EU by 31 October, with or without a deal, but insists that he is confident he can get an acceptable agreement by the Halloween deadline.
But Mr Stewart said that a new deal was undeliverable by October, meaning that Mr Johnson was effectively setting a course for no deal, which could only succeed if he asked the Queen to suspend parliament through a process known as prorogation” to prevent MPs from blocking it.
“He is expressly committed to no-deal because what he is saying is ‘I will try to negotiate a different deal by 31 October with Europe and if I can’t then I will go to no-deal’,” said the international development secretary.
“Well, Europe is not giving a radically different deal by 31 October, particularly not if he is beginning negotiations by saying ‘By the way, I’m withholding the £39 billion and threatening the Irish border’.”
With a clear majority against no-deal in parliament, this left Mr Johnson only with the option of prorogation, he said.
“He has no plan for how he is going to get no-deal through parliament – which is what he is promising to do – except by proroguing and he wouldn’t be honest about whether or not he is going to prorogue,” Mr Stewart said.
He also insisted that prorogation should not even be on the table. “It’s outrageous, it’s unconstitutional, it’s illegal, it’s un-British, it’s undemocratic, it’s unpatriotic, it’s unconscionable,” he said.
In a direct challenge to the former foreign secretary, Mr Stewart said: “I want Boris to answer: Will he or will he not prorogue parliament? I want him to rule it out now, and if he won’t rule it out, I want him to say he won’t rule it out. I believe I can win this entire campaign on that single fact. If this man is genuinely countenancing proroguing parliament, or even leaving it as an option, that should be the end of anybody’s candidacy.”
If Mr Johnson declined to rule out prorogation, the 160,000 Tory members who will finally decide the new leader would be faced with a stark choice, he said.
“I am saying to the members, ‘Are you really going to choose somebody whose entire political programme is to lock the doors of the British parliament?’”
Stewart has said he would not serve in a government led by Mr Johnson, and told The Independent that this applied to any candidate advocating no deal. But he said he would not join a no-confidence vote threatened by Labour if Mr Johnson won the leadership. “My vote would be to prevent no deal, not to bring down a Conservative prime minister,” he said.
The international development secretary said he was horrified by Mr Johnson’s interview, which confirmed that he had “decided to out-Farage Farage”.
“The principles laid out in his interview in black and white are irresponsible,” Mr Stewart said. “They include promises that can’t be kept, offensive threats that can’t be sustained, they will lead to the poisoning of our politics and the poisoning of our relationship with Europe. And underlying it all is a kind of swaggering machismo which is not in keeping with somebody standing to be leader.
“This is the type of politics that is now emerging in the US and some parts of Europe. It’s not our politics, it’s not our tradition. I’m very confident that when it comes to the members of the Conservative Party, if they are asked to choose between me and Boris, they will not choose that kind of politics.
“You can’t simultaneously ride the horse of Farage and the horse of reality. Those are two beasts that head off in different directions. The problem with that is that if you try to then jump back to reality, if he tried to then pivot to acknowledge the truth – which is that he has no plan on how he is going to leave the EU, no way of getting no-deal through parliament and no plan as to how he is going to negotiate anything with Europe at all – he will simply precipitate a general election, because the fundamental plank of his promise is undeliverable.”
Mr Stewart, who entered the race as a rank outsider but has upped his profile with visits around the country and videos that have racked up millions of views on social media, questioned many Tories’ belief that Mr Johnson must be leader because he can deliver election success.
Mr Johnson’s approach was “a recipe for delay” that would fuel the rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, while his approach of returning to the deal agreed last November with the option of a fresh mandate from a citizens’ assembly would ensure that the UK left the EU in an orderly way before the next election.
“You can’t win an election by out-Faraging Farage,” he said. “It just doesn’t work. We tested that theory to destruction in 2017.
“The way to defeat the Brexit Party is to get Brexit done and the reason Boris’s pitch doesn’t work is that he can’t get Brexit done. He would be forced into a general election with Brexit not done, against the Brexit Party and with not a single young person voting for him, without the cities voting for him.
“It would be the worst electoral defeat the Conservative Party has suffered for 20 years or more.”
Although he trails better-known candidates in the betting, Mr Stewart believes he has a real chance of joining Johnson on the shortlist of two put to the party membership later this month, if he can ensure he features in planned TV debates. He said he had already secured the eight MPs’ nominations required to enter the race but was “two or three” short of the 17 needed to get through the first round.
He pointed to opinion polls suggesting that he far outstripped the other candidates on various leadership qualities among the relatively small proportion of voters who have actually heard of him.
“By the time I’m in the final two, everybody who’s voting will have heard of me,” he said. “The evidence is that the more people know me, the more popular I am.
“Everybody already knows Boris. They’ve already made up their minds. The negatives he brings with him ain’t going anywhere.”