'Desperate' Gove tries to deflect heat on to Johnson as contenders line up
Tory leadership race is now made up of 10 declared candidates
Michael Gove was accused of "desperation" last night as he launched a highly personal attack on arch-rival Boris Johnson to deflect questions about his cocaine abuse.
The environment secretary's hopes of succeeding Theresa May as British prime minister appeared to be fading fast yesterday after the official launch of his leadership bid became dominated by the issue of his past use of the class A drug.
In a further blow to Mr Gove, UK Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt chose to back Jeremy Hunt instead of him, as the foreign secretary overtook Mr Gove as the main challenger to Mr Johnson.
Asked whether he should now "call it a day" after three days of headlines about his cocaine snorting past, Mr Gove instead taunted Mr Johnson by suggesting he does not "believe in [his] heart" he is up to the job of prime minister.
Having betrayed Mr Johnson by sabotaging his 2016 leadership run, Mr Gove mocked the former London mayor by saying: "Whatever you do, don't pull out - I know you have before."
Supporters of other candidates said it was clear Mr Gove was "struggling" and predicted he would be forced to withdraw from the Tory leadership race at an early stage.
Mr Johnson is the clear front-runner in the contest to replace Mrs May, with almost twice as many MPs backing him as Mr Gove or any other candidate.
Ten candidates will go through to the first round of voting on Thursday - twice as many as in any previous Tory leadership contest - after receiving at least eight nominations each.
Sam Gyimah, the former education minister, pulled out after failing to win sufficient support.
Mr Gove's leadership bid has been faltering since it emerged on Saturday that he had taken cocaine several times in his 30s. And while Mr Hunt unveiled Ms Mordaunt as his latest big name backer and with his campaign launch being introduced by Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, Mr Gove failed to summon any surprise new backers for his own event.
One MP backing Mr Johnson said of Mr Gove's attack: "It smacks of desperation. He is trying to shift the conversation away from the questions over his own judgment."
Another of Mr Johnson's backers said: "It's a mistake to publicly attack another Tory MP like this. Tactically it's an error because it will only make people more likely to back Boris."
An MP backing Jeremy Hunt said: "He is struggling. Everyone was talking about a Boris v Gove final two, but now it looks very much like Boris v Hunt. I think we will see Gove dropping out after the first round of voting."
Mr Gove, who insisted he was "in it to win it", also refused to say whether he would give Mr Johnson a cabinet job if he became prime minister, saying: "The first person I should discuss that with is her majesty the queen."
Labour MP Kate Hoey accused Mr Gove of being "out of touch" with Northern Ireland when he said in his campaign launch that Karen Bradley had been a "brilliant" secretary of state.
Asked about his potential approach to Northern Ireland, Mr Gove said he would want to lead talks aimed to restore Stormont alongside the "brilliant" Northern Ireland secretary.
In response to Mr Gove's comments, Belfast-born Labour MP Ms Hoey said: "This is not going to gain Gove any support from any party or any political leader or practically any person in Northern Ireland.
"It makes him seem out of touch with opinion in NI about the current secretary of state."
Ms Bradley has come in for criticism in recent months. Last September she admitted that before becoming secretary of state she had not fully understood that "nationalists don't vote for unionist parties and vice versa". (© Daily Telegraph, London)