A defiant Boris Johnson has insisted he will not be “muffled” and “will continue to speak directly”, as he was challenged about past controversial comments at his Tory leadership campaign launch.
Speaking as he set out his vision to be the next Conservative leader and prime minister, Mr Johnson claimed that the British public felt “alienated” from those in Westminster “because too often they feel we are muffling and veiling our language”.
He was asked by Sky News if a string of controversial comments, which includes referring to Muslim women wearing the burka as “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”, meant he was not suitable for the top job.
“If sometimes in the course of trying to get across what I genuinely think, I use phrases and language that have caused offence, of course I’m sorry for the offence that I have caused,” Mr Johnson told Sky’s political editor Beth Rigby in a Q&A following his speech.
“But I will continue to speak as directly as I can.
“Because that is what I think the British public want to hear.”
Having been accused of shying away from scrutiny for not taking part in broadcast or newspaper interviews, Mr Johnson faced questions from journalists for the first time during the campaign.
In the question and answer session, the leadership frontrunner:
:: Sidestepped a question about whether he had taken cocaine at university, saying: “I think what most people in this country want us to really focus on in this campaign, if I may say so, is what we can do for them and what our plans are for this great country of ours”
:: Suggested MPs would not block Brexit, because “in the end, maturity and a sense of duty will prevail”
:: Clarified that he would “stick up” for all businesses, having previously declared “f*** business” because of firms’ Brexit concerns
:: Defended the use of stop and search and said his record as mayor of London made him suitable to lead the country;
:: Acknowledged “there will be difficulties and bumps in the road” if he becomes prime minister, but his team will “hit the ground running”
:: Said “I cannot swear that I have always observed a top speed limit of 70mph” when asked if he had ever done anything illegal.
A total of 10 candidates are fighting to succeed Theresa May in Downing Street, with many having already launched their campaigns.
Mr Johnson is by some distance the preferred option among Conservative MPs, a Sky News analysis has found.
He has the support of 80 MPs, well ahead of his nearest challenger Jeremy Hunt, who is on 33.
Sajid Javid, who has the declared support of 19 MPs, launched his campaign later on Wednesday.
He described Mr Johnson’s as “yesterday’s news” and called for the party to opt for a “new kind of leadership and a new kind of leader”.
Speaking at a packed launch event, Mr Johnson promised to end the “morass” over Brexit and presented himself as the only candidate who could take on and defeat Labour and Jeremy Corbyn.
Taking Britain out of the EU formed a key part of his speech, with Mr Johnson warning of dire consequences for the Tories if they did not deliver.
“After three years and two missed deadlines, we must leave the EU on October 31,” he said.
“Delay means defeat. Delay means Corbyn. Kick the can and we kick the bucket.”
Mr Johnson added: “We cannot ignore the morass at Westminster where parties have entered a yellow box junction, unable to move forward or back, while around the country there is a mood of disillusion, even despair, at our ability to get things done.
“The longer it goes on, the worst the risk that there will be serious contamination and loss of confidence, because the people of this country deserve the best from their leader.”
Amid fears he could commit Britain to leaving the EU without a deal, Mr Johnson said he was not “aiming” for such an outcome and “I don’t think we will end up with any such thing”.
But he said it was “responsible” to prepare for one and not take it off the table.
And as MPs prepared to launch a cross-party bid to take control of the Commons agenda and try to take no deal off the table, Mr Johnson warned: “I think if we now block it [Brexit], collectively as parliamentarians we will reap the whirlwind and we will face mortal retribution from the electorate.”
A central thrust of the former mayor’s pitch was that his time in City Hall in the capital showed he would make a good prime minister.
He said he had seen the city through riots, strikes and the “teething problems” of the 2012 Olympics and wanted to “do for the whole country what we did in London”.
Mr Johnson said his aim as leader would be to ensure “no town, no community, no person feels left behind” and bridge not just Britain’s “wealth gap” but its “opportunity gap” by fighting for “those left behind”.
There was no mention of his pledge to cut income tax for higher earners, a policy which has been criticised by many of his rivals.
Mr Javid, an outsider in the race in terms of support, said he had been an outsider for most of his life.
Seeking to portray himself as the change candidate, he told his campaign launch: “I believe now more than ever that at this moment as we face the challenges that are unlike any that we have faced before, this calls for a new kind of leadership and a new kind of leader.
“A leader is not just for Christmas, or just for Brexit.
“We can’t risk going with someone who feels like the short-term, comfort zone choice.”