The gloves came off in the Conservative leadership battle today as Boris Johnson’s rivals took aim at his tax-cutting plans while Michael Gove launched a personal attack on the frontrunner.
The former foreign secretary pledged to increase the higher rate income tax threshold to £80,000, benefiting three million people.
Environment secretary Gove – who scuppered Johnson’s leadership bid in 2016 by withdrawing his support at the eleventh hour – used his campaign launch to directly attack Johnson’s plan.
“One thing I will never do as prime minister is to use our tax and benefits system to give the already wealthy another tax cut,” he said.
Gove, who has been dogged by revelations he took cocaine on several occasions while working as a journalist 20 years ago, attempted to inject fresh energy into his flagging campaign with a speech highlighting his humble beginnings as the adopted son of an Aberdeen fish processor.
He also openly mocked his former Cabinet colleague’s decision to quit the 2016 race.
Gove said: “If I get through, as I’m sure I will actually, to the final two against Mr Johnson, this is what I will say to him: ‘Mr Johnson, whatever you do don’t pull out. I know you have before and I know you may not believe in your heart that you can do it, but the Conservative party membership deserve a choice’.”
Dominic Raab and Jeremy Hunt also attacked Johnson’s tax cut plan, as did health secretary Matt Hancock during a flurry of leadership campaign launches in Westminster yesterday.
Raab, the former Brexit secretary, argued the policy would be difficult to sell in Labour marginal seats, saying: “I’d much rather be going there saying that I’m going to cut the taxes of the lowest paid in work than succumbing to what will inevitably [be], whoever’s the prime minister, the caricature of that ‘you’re the party of privilege’.”
Hancock was also cool on Johnson’s plan, arguing that as Prime Minister he would only cut taxes “when we can afford it”.
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt’s leadership bid received a boost when he secured the backing of fellow Cabinet ministers Amber Rudd and Penny Mordaunt. The endorsement from Mordaunt is seen as particularly significant as the defence secretary was a prominent backer of Leave during the EU referendum, whereas Hunt campaigned for Remain.
One leadership hopeful unable to rustle up enough supporters was former universities minister Sam Gymiah.
He pulled out of the race as the deadline for nominations closed at 5pm, claiming “there has not been enough time to build sufficient support” for his campaign – which included a pledge for another referendum on Brexit.
Ten contenders secured the required backing of eight MPs each to progress through to the first ballot: Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab, Matt Hancock, Andrea Leadsom, Mark Harper, Esther McVey and Rory Stewart.