Tory leadership rival Jeremy Hunt today refused to say whether Boris Johnson is ‘honest’ as he warned the Prime Minister has a ‘big mountain to climb’ in winning back Tory voters.
Mr Hunt, who ran against Mr Johnson for the Conservative leadership in 2019, once again refused to rule out another leadership challenge.
But the former Cabinet minister insisted now was not the time for renewed efforts to topple Mr Johnson and said he ‘hoped’ the PM would lead the Tories into the next general election.
Mr Hunt’s comments will be seen as a warning shot to the PM – and a clear message to Tory MPs – that he is waiting in the wings should Mr Johnson continue to stumble.
The PM’s position in Number 10 has been put into serious peril by the Partygate scandal, which saw him fined for Covid rule-breaking in Downing Street.
This month’s local election results have also increased fears within Conservative ranks that the party could see its so-called ‘blue wall’ areas across southern England continue to fall to the Liberal Democrats and Labour.
Mr Johnson saw the Tories lose both the Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire constituences to the Lib Dems in Westminster by-elections last year.
The Conservatives are now also facing a battle to keep hold of Tiverton and Honiton following the recent resignation of porn-watching Tory MP Neil Parish.
At the council elections on 5th May, the Tories lost control of 11 councils – with many of those being ceded to the Lib Dems and Labour – with the Conservatives also suffering the loss of close to 500 council seats.
Mr Hunt, a former foreign secretary and health secretary, today reiterated he could seek a return to the top-level of Government.
But he said the Ukraine war should provide ‘perspective’ on the feverish speculation about the PM’s leadership in the wake of Partygate.
Jeremy Hunt insisted now was not the time for renewed efforts to topple Boris Johnson and said he ‘hoped’ the PM would lead the Tories into the next general election
The PM’s position in Number 10 has been put into serious peril by the Partygate scandal, which saw him fined for Covid rule-breaking in Downing Street
‘I have said many times that I don’t rule out a return to frontline politics myself,’ he told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme.
‘But I don’t think now is the right moment. Britain has been the most robust member of the Western alliance in the face of the first major war in Europe in our lifetimes.
‘I think the only person who would rejoice if we had a hiatus of several months in the leadership in Britain would be Vladimir Putin.
‘So I don’t think this is the moment for these discussions.’
Mr Hunt cast doubt on the PM’s ability to once again prove a Tory vote winner as he insisted it would be a ‘mistake’ to dismiss the party’s local election losses as ‘mid-term blues’.
He added: ‘The reason people vote Conservative is because they want economic growth, they want sound money, they want the prospect of lower taxes for their family.
‘None of those things are true at the moment. So the absolute priority for the Government must be to change from a high-inflation, low-growth economy to a low-inflation, high-growth economy.’
Asked if Mr Johnson was the best person to be Tory leader, Mr Hunt replied: ‘I hope he can turn things round because I don’t think this is the moment for a leadership contest.
‘But I would say this, I think the outcome of the next election will be decided not on personalities but on which party has the best long-term plans.
‘How do we defend democracy in a world where China is a bigger economy than the US? How do we spread wealth? How do we fix long-term problems in the NHS?’
Mr Hunt, who ran against Mr Johnson for the Conservative leadership in 2019, once again refused to rule out another leadership challenge
Mr Hunt, pictured with his wife Lucia, dodged a question on whether Mr Johnson is ‘an honest man’
Mr Hunt also dodged a question on whether Mr Johnson is ‘an honest man’.
He responded that ‘talking about personalities is not a helpful thing to do’, adding: ‘It’s a simple question but it’s not a helpful thing to do when I’ve just said we need to recognise the international situation is very serious and we need strong leadership from the PM we have.’
Mr Hunt called for fellow Tory MPs to ‘back the PM in the situation we’re in now’, as he described how the Ukraine was made it ‘impossible not to put things into perspective’.
He expressed his hope the party ‘can turn things round under the PM’s leadership’.
Asked if this meant he backed Mr Johnson to lead the Tories into the next general election, scheduled for 2024, Mr Hunt replied: ‘I very much hope so.’
Pressed on whether he would rather be the Conservative leader as the party sought to keep hold of its House of Commons majority, he added: ‘I know you would like to create a suggestion I would want something different, but I really hope we can (turn things around).
‘But I do also hope we recognise that in order to do that we have a big mountain to climb in terms of winning back the support of many of our core voters – not just in the south of England, but particularly in the south of England – who are very concerned at the situation we’re in.’