Contenders for the Tory crown have been lining up to insist there must be no unchallenged “coronation” for leadership frontrunner Boris Johnson.
Senior party figures were reported to be drawing up plans for the other candidates to withdraw from the contest next week after Mr Johnson gained an overwhelming win in the first ballot of MPs.
According to The Daily Telegraph, the scheme was hatched in the Tory whips’ office in an attempt to avoid weeks of damaging “blue on blue” attacks by the rival contenders.
It would mean Mr Johnson would be the only candidate to go forward to the final postal ballot of party members, making his election a formality.
However the plan was strongly condemned by leadership contenders Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart, who both insisted there must be a proper contest.
Arriving for a leadership hustings for the party grassroots, Mr Javid said they needed to learn from the last contest when Theresa May was elected unopposed after Andrea Leadsom dropped out.
“The party and the country deserve a good choice,” he told reporters outside the event organised by the National Conservative Convention.
“I don’t want to see a coronation. There needs to be a proper process that’s followed through.
“We had a coronation the last time. That didn’t work out well so let’s not make the same mistake again.
“Let’s give the opportunity to the members to have their say.”
His comments were echoed by Mr Stewart, the International Development Secretary.
“The members of the Conservative Party who are wise, sensible, experienced people, deserve to have a choice,” he said.
“We should have learned from the last time round coronations are not the way to do democratic politics.”
Meanwhile Mr Johnson, who has been criticised for his reluctance to submit to media scrutiny, avoided reporters as his Range Rover pulled up at a side door at the London hotel where the event was being held.
Mr Stewart, who has been his sharpest critic among the other candidates, accused him of adopting a presidential approach to the contest.
“The whole genius of British politics is that we don’t behave like American presidents sweeping up in a motorcade. We’re all about talking to people,” he said.
Mr Johnson has made it clear that he will not be taking part in the first TV debate scheduled for Sunday on Channel 4.
He has however said he will appear in the second debate on the BBC on Tuesday after the field has further slimmed down following the second round of voting by MPs.
Earlier, Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary who is also in the running, said it was essential all the contenders 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 can’t take the heat of the TV studios what chance of taking the heat of the negotiating chamber in Brussels?”
He also contrasted his own background as a state school-educated son of a refugee with the “privileged” Old Etonian Mr Johnson, who is campaigning on a promise of tax cuts for the better off.
“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?”