Tory leadership hopeful Dominic Raab has hit out at frontrunner Boris Johnson, saying the party did not need a leader who could be seen as part of the “privileged elite”.
The former Brexit secretary poured scorn on Mr Johnson’s reluctance to appear in the television debates, questioning whether he had the “mettle” to be prime minister.
He also attacked his plan for a tax cut for people earning over £50,000 – contrasting it with his own proposal to help those on low income.
The six remaining candidates to succeed Theresa May are due to appear before a hustings on Saturday organised by the National Conservative Convention representing the party grassroots.
Mr Johnson – who overwhelmingly topped the first ballot of MPs with more than a third of the votes – has made it clear that he will not be taking part in the first TV debate on Channel 4 on Sunday.
He said however that he would appear in the second debate on the BBC on Tuesday after the field has further slimmed down following the second round of voting.
It followed criticism that he has been seeking to avoid media scrutiny amid fears of throwing away a seemingly unassailable lead.
Mr Raab said it was essential that all the contenders for No 10 were thoroughly tested in the heat of debate.
“Everyone is going to have to demonstrate that they have not just the vision but the nerve and mettle to deal with the EU and with a minority government,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
“If you’re not up for the TV debates and the test that provides, people will argue it’s a barometer for what would happen if you get the job.
“If you can’t take the heat of the TV studios what chance of taking the heat of the negotiating chamber in Brussels?”
Mr Raab, who needs to add to his first round tally of 27 votes if he is to continue after the second round, also contrasted his background as a grammar school boy and the son of a refugee with ex-public school rivals like the Old Etonian Mr Johnson.
“When you campaign in marginal seats, who can reach out and unite the working class vote and the middle-class vote?” he said
“Are we going to be in a better position to do that with a candidate who isn’t so easily caricatured as being from the privileged elite, with the son of a refugee, a grammar school boy who is offering tax cuts to most of those people on £15,000 as opposed to people on £50,000 and above?”
Meanwhile, there was anger at a reported plan for the other contenders to pull out next week with only Mr Johnson’s name going forward to the final ballot of grassroots members in July.
The Telegraph reported that the scheme had been hatched in the Tory whips’ office in an attempt to avoid weeks of damaging “blue on blue” attacks by the rival candidates which would simply provide ammunition for Labour.
Such a move would be highly controversial within the party following criticism of the “coronation” of Theresa May, without giving the members a chance to vote, after Andrea Leadsom withdrew from the 2016 contest.
Rory Stewart, one of the remaining candidates, tweeted: “Please write to your MP if you think this is not a good idea and please RT (retweet) if you think anyone else might think this is not a good idea….”