Boris Johnson has said he wants the Conservatives to “radiate love” after being challenged over offensive comments he made about Muslim women.
The Tory leadership hopeful was questioned at the latest party hustings in Nottingham about his “derogatory” remarks, specifically those in which he said women who wore the burka resembled “letterboxes”.
Mr Johnson – who hours before was criticised by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan at Pride 2019 for previous homophobic comments – was asked by a Conservative member if he would be “a fitting prime minister for everyone, including minority groups” after his “arguably racist comments in the past”.
The former foreign secretary said he wanted “a modern British culture in which we value each other, in which we respect each other, and in which we love each other in a Christian spirit, or a non-Christian spirit”.
He added: “That should be our general approach and I think the British people get it. That’s what we should radiate from the modern Conservative Party and I think we do.”
In addition to his comments about the burka, which were made in his Daily Telegraph column last year, and calling gay men “tank-topped bumboys” in another column back in 1998, Mr Johnson has also faced criticism over a 2002 article describing black people as “piccaninnies” and referring to “watermelon smiles”.
Despite the controversy surrounding Mr Johnson, the latest YouGov poll of Tory members suggests he is on course for a comfortable victory over Jeremy Hunt, with three-quarters of Conservatives supporting him.
Mr Johnson is backed by 74% of Tory members against 26% for Mr Hunt, according to a YouGov poll for The Times carried out this week.
Perhaps tellingly, one of the warmest rounds of applause his rival received from the audience in Nottingham was for saying he would be willing to serve in a Boris Johnson government.
Mr Hunt was asked by a party member: “If you win, would you invite Boris into your cabinet and if he wins would you be prepared to serve under him?”
The foreign secretary came back with the simple response “yes and yes”, which left audience member Rob Gough, 30, saying that is “good because we want to unite the party”.
Ahead of the hustings, Mr Hunt did receive a minor boost from another YouGov poll that suggested he is the candidate favoured to boost relations between nations of the UK.
The results showed 37% of Conservative voters backed him on that front, compared to 21% for Mr Johnson.
Speaking in Perth on Friday, both men ruled out a second Scottish independence referendum and said they were committed to ensuring the UK does not break up as a result of Brexit.
The contest continues amid confirmation from Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis that some members could receive more than one ballot paper for the leadership election.
Writing on Twitter, Mr Lewis said individuals registered at more than one address may receive multiple ballots, as in a general election, but insisted that all members “can only vote once”.
His tweet came after the BBC reported that more than a thousand party members could have been issued with multiple ballot papers.
There are 180,000 Tory members eligible to vote in the leadership election, according Mr Lewis, and the results will be revealed a day after the ballot closes on 22 July.
Mr Hunt has urged members to wait until he and Mr Johnson have gone head-to-head in upcoming TV debates before voting, telling them in The Times: “Try before you buy.”
He called on the party’s membership to choose what he calls “serious leadership” after Mr Johnson used an interview with the Daily Mail to make a series of campaign pledges, including longer jail terms for violent or sexual offenders and demanding that immigrants to the UK learn English.