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Jeremy Hunt calls on ‘coward’ Boris Johnson to agree to TV debates



LONDON — Jeremy Hunt has called his Conservative leadership rival Boris Johnson a “coward” for refusing to agree to a live TV debate with him this week, as pressure mounts on Johnson to address a row with his girlfriend which resulted in the police being called.

In an uncharacteristically personal attack, the foreign secretary said that Johnson should be challenged over his plans to take Britain out of the EU by October if he becomes prime minister, accusing Johnson of “pathetically” evading questioning.

Johnson refused over the weekend to answer questions about a row with his girlfriend in the early hours of Friday morning which resulted in the police being called after neighbours heard screams.

Friends of the former foreign secretary have insisted that the couple have reconciled and Johnson has indicated he is not willing to discuss what he sees as a private matter. He refused repeatedly to ask questions about the incident at a hustings event on Saturday, claiming that the public was more concerned about his plan to deliver Brexit.

Writing for the Times, Hunt said he was “not interested in debating Boris’s private life” but said the prime minister risked “slinking in through the back door” if he continued to evade scrutiny.

“A new prime minister needs the legitimacy of having made his arguments publicly and having them subjected to scrutiny,” the foreign secretary said.

“Only then can you walk through the front door of No 10 with your head held high instead of slinking through the back door, which is what Boris appears to want.”

He added: “Don’t be a coward Boris, man up and show the nation you can cope with the intense scrutiny the most difficult job in the country will involve.”

Johnson has been heavily criticised for refusing to take part in leadership debates. He has agreed to take part in two, one to be streamed online and one on ITV, both of which will be broadcast after Conservative party members receive their ballot papers on July 6.

That means many Tory members will have cast their votes by the time Johnson’s performance in the debate can be assessed.

In his Daily Telegraph column on Monday, Johnson tried to divert attention away from his private life by repeating his commitment to leave the EU on October 31, the scheduled exit date.

He wrote: “This time we are not going to bottle it. We are not going to fail.”

He called it “disgraceful” the UK was still in the EU exactly three years after it voted to leave, and claimed that Brexit under his premiership would “renew the national faith in democracy.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, one of Johnson’s most high-profile backers, said it was “total nonsense” to suggest that Johnson was avoiding tough questioning, adding that he had agreed to take part in several hustings before party members cast their votes next month.

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