Boris Johnson’s Tory leadership bid has received a new boost with the backing of UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock who pulled out of the contest last week.
Despite having ruled out a no-deal Brexit during his campaign, in contrast to Mr Johnson, he said the former foreign secretary was now the best candidate to re-unite the fractured Conservative Party.
His endorsement came after the clear frontrunner was criticised for failing to appear in the first of the televised leadership debates staged by Channel 4 on Sunday evening.
Writing in The Times, Mr Hancock said: “Having considered all the options, I’m backing Boris Johnson as the best candidate to unite the Conservative party, so we can deliver Brexit and then unite the country behind an open, ambitious, forward-looking agenda, delivered with the energy that gets stuff done.”
He said he believed Mr Johnson had a “unique personality” which would bring the Tories together behind a Brexit deal, adding: “We need that unity in the Conservative party, and then in the country. Let’s move forward.”
Mr Johnson also picked up the support over the weekend of former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey who was eliminated in the first round of voting by MPs.
However, it is far from clear the 20 MPs who supported Mr Hancock in the first ballot will now follow him in backing Mr Johnson.
Mr Johnson, who has been under fire over his reluctance to face media scrutiny, is likely to face further criticism after refusing to take part in a hustings on Monday organised by political journalists at Westminster.
Instead he chose to use his column in The Daily Telegraph to announce plans to extend full-fibre broadband to every home in the country by within five years, nine years ahead of the Government’s 2033 target.
“A fast internet connection is not some metropolitan luxury. It is an indispensable tool of modern life,” he said.
“It is therefore a disgrace that this country should suffer from a deep digital divide, so that many rural areas and towns are simply left behind.”
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) June 16, 2019
Mr Johnson has said he will take part in a BBC debate on Tuesday, after the second round of voting, when the field of candidates will have been whittled down further.
He was however was taunted about his absence in Sunday’s event by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt who said it raised questions about his ability to take on the job of prime minister.
“Where is Boris? If his team won’t allow him out with five pretty friendly colleagues, how is is he going to fare with 27 European countries?” he said.
The sharpest exchanges were however dominated by Dominic Raab’s refusal to rule out suspending Parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit.
The former Brexit secretary said he did not think it was likely “but it is not illegal”.
“The moment that we telegraph to the EU we are not willing to walk away at the end of October we take away our best shot of a deal,” he said.
International Development Secretary Rory Stewart said shutting down Parliament was “undemocratic” and “deeply disturbing” and would not work.
Mr Hunt said it was the “wrong thing to do” while Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: “You don’t deliver democracy by trashing democracy.
“We are not selecting a dictator.”
Mr Raab warned that Parliament could not stop a determined prime minister, saying: “It is near impossible to stop a government that is serious.”
That drew a sharp retort from Environment Secretary Michael Gove who told him: “I will defend our democracy.
“You cannot take Britain out of the EU against the will of Parliament.”