Boris Johnson stood accused on Tuesday of having nothing to offer Britain but “blind optimism” as he and rival Jeremy Hunt clashed over Brexit in a bad-tempered TV debate.
Mr Johnson is the runaway front-runner to replace Theresa May this month, wooing voters with a promise to take Britain out of the EU on October 31 whatever happens.
But in their first and only head-to-head debate, his rival Mr Hunt accused him of not being honest about the risks of leaving the bloc without a deal with Brussels.
“If we want to make a success of Brexit it’s not about blind optimism, it’s about understanding the details that will get us the deal that’s right for our country,” said Mr Hunt, the Foreign Secretary.
Mr Johnson, a former London mayor who preceded Mr Hunt at the Foreign Office, has been accused of having only a vague plan for office.
He said that “we’ve had a bellyful of defeatism” and that he would help Britain “get back our mojo” and “off the hamster wheel of doom”.
Ballots have already been sent out to the 160,000 members of the ruling Conservative Party who will decide the winner, with the result set to be announced on July 23.
A YouGov survey at the weekend suggested 74 per cent of Tory members backed Mr Johnson, but during the hour-long ITV programme, Mr Hunt showed he would not give up without a fight.
He repeatedly interrupted and challenged his rival, accusing him of failing to answer questions, including whether he would resign if Brexit did not happen as promised.
Mr Johnson, who enraged many in Brussels with his exaggerated claims about the EU during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, gave a characteristically flippant reply.
“I don’t want to hold out to the EU the prospect that they might encourage my resignation by refusing to agree a deal,” he said.
Both men insist they can renegotiate the divorce terms that Theresa May agreed on with Brussels, but which Parliament repeatedly rejected, forcing her to delay Brexit twice.
The EU says it will not reopen negotiations and both contenders say they will leave the bloc with no deal if necessary.
Mr Johnson said he would use the £39 billion (Dh178.62bn) allocated to settle Britain’s dues after four decades of EU membership to lessen the effect, saying that with planning, a “no-deal” exit would be “vanishingly inexpensive”.
He laid into Mr Hunt for refusing to rule out a further Brexit delay, while he left open the option of suspending Parliament if MPs tried to stop a “no-deal” Brexit.
Parliament earlier on Tuesday voted to demand that the government give them fortnightly updates about power-sharing in Northern Ireland between October and December, a device intended to thwart any suspension.
Mr Johnson said that without a real threat of walking away, the EU “won’t take us seriously”.
“A deadline will deliver a deal,” he said.
Brexit is the biggest challenge facing Mrs May’s successor and the major concern of most Tory party members.
But Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt have also been drawn into a rare diplomatic row with Britain’s closest ally, the United States.
The leak at the weekend of unflattering diplomatic memos by Britain’s ambassador to Washington triggered angry tweets from US President Donald Trump.
Mr Hunt earlier said the president was “disrespectful and wrong” in his criticism of the UK government and the ambassador, Sir Kim Darroch.
In the TV debate, Mr Johnson condemned the leak of the memos but refused to match Mr Hunt’s promise to keep Mr Darroch in the post.
“I don’t think it was necessarily the right thing for him [Mr Trump] to do but our relationship with the US is of fantastic importance,” he said.