Jeremy Hunt has declined to say whether Boris Johnson is an honest man and said he “hopes” the Prime Minister will lead the Conservative Party into the next general election.
The ex-cabinet minister again refused to rule himself out of a future Tory leadership contest, but said now was not the right moment.
Asked on the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme whether Mr Johnson is “an honest man” in the wake of the partygate scandal, Mr Hunt hesitated and then said that “talking about personalities is not a helpful thing to do” when faced with a “serious” international situation such as the Ukraine war.
Quizzed by presenter Sophie Raworth on whether the Prime Minister was the best person to lead the Tory party into the next election, Mr Hunt answered: “I very much hope so.
“I hope he can turn things around, because, as I say, I don’t think this is the moment for a leadership contest.”
Mr Hunt was the strongest opponent against Mr Johnson for the top job in the party in 2019 and has been touted as a possible candidate should there be another contest.
On that prospect, he said: “I don’t rule out a return to frontline politics myself, but I don’t think now is the right moment.
“Britain has been the most robust member of the Western alliance in the face of the first major war in Europe in our lifetimes and I think the only person who would rejoice if we had a hiatus of several months in the leadership in Britain would be (Russian president) Vladimir Putin.”
Mountain to climb
Mr Hunt acknowledged that his party has “a big mountain to climb in terms of winning back the support of many of our core voters”.
He described it as a “mistake” to put the Tories’ losses in the local elections down to mid-term blues, saying the party is failing to offer voters economic growth or the prospect of lower taxes.
Mr Hunt appeared to back the Prime Minister in his dispute with the European Union over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“The situation we have now in Northern Ireland is not sustainable. It is just not acceptable that you can’t export goods freely from England to Northern Ireland,” he said.
“I think it is right to say that we have to be prepared to do difficult things because what we have now isn’t working.”
Mr Hunt said he understood why the EU was “annoyed” that the UK might pull out of the protocol, but said a trade war could be averted with “goodwill on all sides”.