LONDON (AP) — Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt stepped up his attacks Monday on front-runner Boris Johnson in the race to become Britain’s next prime minister, challenging him to face public scrutiny amid the fallout from a reported quarrel with his girlfriend that prompted a police visit.
Writing in the Times of London, Hunt said Johnson needs to earn the public’s trust by facing television debates before 160,000 Conservative Party members vote on which one of them should lead the party. The winner of the contest will replace Theresa May, who stepped down as party leader after failing to secure Parliament’s approval for her European Union divorce deal.
“Don’t be a coward, Boris,” Hunt wrote. “Man up and show the nation you can cope with the intense scrutiny the most difficult job in the country will involve.”
Sky News invited Johnson and Hunt to a debate on Tuesday, but cancelled the session because Johnson refused to take part. The broadcaster has invited both candidates to another debate on July 1.
Johnson is the favorite in the race against Hunt but he has faced criticism for avoiding media appearances and debates. Such concerns have been heightened by Johnson’s refusal to comment on the incident that brought officers to his door early Friday, when a neighbor reported hearing shouting, screaming and banging from the home that Johnson shares with partner, Carrie Symonds.
Asked about the police visit several times during a Conservative forum on Saturday, Johnson said the public did not want to “hear about that kind of thing.” Johnson, who is known for attention-getting antics and glibly offensive comments, said the public should judge his character from his track record as mayor of London and as Britain’s former foreign secretary.
The argument, first reported by the Guardian newspaper, was recorded by a neighbor, Tom Penn. In the recording, Symonds reportedly can be heard telling Johnson to “get off me,” and to “get out of my flat.” Penn said he was concerned for the welfare of those inside.
“Once clear that no one was harmed, I contacted the Guardian, as I felt it was of important public interest,” Penn said. “I believe it is reasonable for someone who is likely to become our next prime minister to be held accountable for all of their words, actions and behaviors.”
Johnson’s supporters suggested that Penn was motivated by his opposition to Johnson’s political views, a claim that Penn denies.
“I, along with a lot of my neighbors all across London, voted to remain within the EU. That is the extent of my involvement in politics,” Penn said.
Leaping to Johnson’s defense, supporters like former Cabinet minister Priti Patel told the BBC that the front-runner would not comment on his private life.
“The very prospect of someone taping someone in their private home quite frankly tells me that it is politically motivated and that is not the type of behavior that you’d expect in our country,” Patel said.
The incident has dominated the nation’s newspapers. The Daily Mail said Johnson’s “latest imbroglio” has “all the hallmarks of a stitch-up.”
But the paper said Johnson “can’t let it fester,” adding: “The story is out there and millions are talking about it.”
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