Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has claimed his business background will help resolve Brexit as the Tory leadership race fired up with Rory Stewart launching a strongly- worded attack on front-runner Boris Johnson.
Mr Hunt, who formally launches his bid to be prime minister on Sunday, is joining a rapidly expanding field with Health Secretary Matt Hancock also throwing his hat into the ring.
Sparks began to fly in the contest with International Development Secretary Mr Stewart saying he would refuse to serve in a government lead by Mr Johnson as he appeared to compare the ex-foreign secretary to Pinocchio.
Mr Hunt told the Sunday Times: “If I was prime minister, I’d be the first prime minister in living memory who has been an entrepreneur by background.
“Doing deals is my bread and butter as someone who has set up their own business.”
He added: “The first three businesses I set up failed so I know what it’s like to have a business that isn’t working out, not to be able to pay your employees their salary at the end of the month, to realise that your products aren’t selling. I’ve had all those experiences but what do you learn? You learn to keep going.”
Mr Hunt’s emphasis on his entrepreneurial past is being seen as swipe at Mr Johnson who reportedly once said “f*** business” in relation to Brexit.
In a reference to mythical sea monsters, Mr Hunt said. “The real question is: who has got the experience to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of no-deal or no Brexit. I’ve got very important experience in that respect.
“We can never take no-deal off the table but the best way of avoiding it is to make sure you have someone who is capable of negotiating a deal.”
The comments come after Mr Johnson insisted he would take the UK out of the EU on October 31 with or without a deal.
Mr Stewart was scathing about Mr Johnson’s no deal stance, insisting that such a position was “damaging and dishonest”.
He told the BBC: “I could not serve in a government whose policy was to push this country into a no-deal Brexit.
“I could not serve with Boris Johnson.”
In what is likely to be seen by many as a dig at Mr Johnson, the International Development Secretary tweeted: “The star name will not always be the best choice.
“There may be times when Jiminy Cricket would make a better leader than Pinocchio.”
The star name will not always be the best choice. There may be times when Jiminy Cricket would make a better leader than Pinocchio.
— Rory Stewart (@RoryStewartUK) May 25, 2019
Treasurer of the highly influential 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown expressed surprise at Mr Stewart’s stance on not serving under Mr Johnson.
Sir Geoffrey told the Press Association: “I think for somebody to rule that out at this stage is slightly odd.”
Asked if he thought the contest was Mr Johnson’s to lose, the Tory grandee said: “No. I don’t think it’s now Boris’s to lose. It is for others to come up and show that they are better.”
Mr Hancock said he was running for leader because the party needed to look to the future and attract younger voters.
He said he would take a different approach to try and get Commons support for a Brexit deal than the one Theresa May used.
He said: “She didn’t start by levelling with people about the trade-offs.
“I think it is much, much easier to bring people together behind a proposal if you are straightforward in advance.”
Asked if Labour would force a Commons no confidence vote in the new prime minister when they take office, shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the Today programme: “Yes.
“Because we believe any incoming prime minister in these circumstance should go to the country anyway and seek a mandate.”
Mr McDonnell said that Labour needed to have a new “conversation” about the way forward on Brexit.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has refused to rule himself out as a Tory leadership candidate.
Asked if he would stand, Dr Fox told the BBC: “Well, I don’t think it’s likely to happen, but, as you say, it’s an unusual contest.”
Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, who has said she will not stand for the top job, told the BBC: “I would be very concerned about somebody who is too enthusiastic about no deal.
“It is very important that whoever takes this on looks for a solution and tries to work to find where the majority of the House (of Commons) is.”
The new Tory leader looks set to take over as prime minister at the end of July after Mrs May finally laid out a timetable for her exit from Downing Street.
The timetable for the contest will see nominations close in the week of June 10, with MPs involved in a series of votes to whittle down what is set to be a crowded field to a final two contenders.
Tory party members will then decide who wins the run-off.