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Tory leadership rivals team up to force Boris Johnson into risky TV debate

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LONDON — Boris Johnson is under growing pressure to take part in televised debates for the Conservative leadership with his campaign team holding out amid fears the gaffe-prone MP could derail his own bid for Downing Street.

The former foreign secretary’s six remaining rivals in the race to become prime minister on Thursday teamed up to write an open letter outlining their commitment to taking part in all of the upcoming television debates.

Johnson, who is the runaway favourite to succeed Theresa May, has so far not agreed to participate in the debates.

He answered just six questions from journalists at his campaign launch this week and has been criticised for failing to match his leadership rivals’ engagement with the British media.

Johnson has instead ran a low-key campaign, which is proving to be effective. He picked up 114 votes from Conservative MPs in the first round of voting on Thursday, with Jeremy Hunt trailing on second on just 43.

Johnson’s spokesman has said he was in “discussions” with broadcasters about participating in their debates. Channel 4, which is hosting a debate on Sunday, has threatened to “empty chair” Johnson if he fails to show up.

In a joint letter, leadership candidates Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart said the Tory leadership contest came at a “critical time” for the country.

“The next Conservative leader, and prime minister, will have the crucial task of uniting Britain behind a new vision — not only to deliver Brexit, but to define what comes next,” they said.

“This leadership contest provides an important opportunity to debate, to shape and to define the ideas which will underpin those competing visions.

“That is why we are committed to taking part in the Channel 4 televised debates this Sunday and the BBC programme next Tuesday.”

Raab, who got 27 votes on Thursday, challenged Johnson to join the debates and criticised him for refusing to agree to participate.

Asked what people should think of a politician who had ducked out of TV debates, he said: “If you can’t hold your nerve and take the heat of a leadership contest what chance under the glare of the lights in Brussels.”

He added: “I’m looking forward to the first televised debates on Sunday hope everyone gets involved.

“We should have a proper debate on the vision for the country.”

Meanwhile, Hancock, who received 20 votes from colleagues in Thursday’s ballot, is understood to be considering dropping out of the race to back one of Johnson’s rivals.

He needs 33 votes to progress to the next round and could be tempted to back either Hunt or Gove in a bid to strengthen their campaigns.

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