MICHAEL GOVE tore into rival Boris Johnson last night as the number of candidates for the Tory leadership was reduced to ten.
The environment secretary came out fighting amid revelations of his past cocaine use, vowing to take the battle to Labour if made PM.
He said he would not hide in his ‘bunker’, as gaffe-prone Mr Johnson has been accused of doing recently by shunning public events.
Mr Gove also taunted his former ally over his decision to pull out of the 2016 leadership race.
He said he expected Mr Johnson to make the final round, adding: ‘If I get through — as I’m sure I will — to the final two against Mr Johnson, I will say to him don’t pull out.
‘I know you have done it before but the Conservative Party deserves a choice, so let’s have a proper race.’
Mr Johnson, who faces a blizzard of questions about his own alleged history of cocaine use, dropped out of the 2016 race won by Theresa May after Mr Gove decided at the last minute not to support him and to stand himself.
Accused of treachery at the time, Mr Gove said he had decided his friend was not up to the job.
And as he launched his new campaign in London, he declared: ‘We need a serious leader. Someone who will take on Jeremy Corbyn at the dispatch box — not hide in their bunker. The stakes couldn’t be higher.’
Mr Gove also attacked Mr Johnson over his vow, unveiled yesterday, to raise the threshold for the top rate of tax from £50,000 to £80,000. He said he would ‘never give the already wealthy another tax cut’.
After Mr Johnson pledged to deliver Brexit on October 31 with or without a deal, committed Leaver Mr Gove said he was prepared to delay it for ‘however long it takes’ to get an agreement.
And he urged his audience to ‘look for the treasure in the heart of every man’ as he begged for forgiveness after his confession to taking cocaine several times when he was in his 20s.
Asked about presiding over the jailing of drug dealers during his time as justice secretary, he said he had tried to make sure offenders were given ‘the support they needed to enjoy a second chance’.
The field of candidates was reduced from 11 to ten as pro-EU former minister Sam Gyimah dropped out after failing to secure the eight nominations needed to go through to the first vote on Thursday.
Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, who had attracted few public backers, confirmed she would be standing after handing in her nomination papers just before the 5pm deadline.
Meanwhile, the other contenders lined up to attack Mr Johnson, who is expected to formally launch his campaign today.
Jeremy Hunt, who unveiled defence secretary Penny Mordaunt and work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd as his latest high-profile supporters, joined Mr Gove in saying a ‘serious leader’ was needed.
The foreign secretary, an entrepreneur before entering Parliament, said: ‘With me to face the unyielding Brussels machine, you’ll be sending in a prime minister who has been negotiating all his life. I want the Conservatives to get their mojo back.’
Ex-Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, who accused Mr Johnson of ‘protecting privilege’ with the tax plan, also claimed to be the best man to extricate Britain from the EU. He said the UK had been ‘humiliated’ in negotiations but added: ‘We won’t deliver Brexit with bluff and bluster.’
He and fellow contenders Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock all attended the launch of Britain Beyond Brexit, a book of essays they have contributed to.
So what happens now?
Today,3pm-7pm: 1922 Committee stages hustings event where candidates try to win more support.
Tomorrow, 4pm-6pm: 1922 Committee stages second hustings event.
Thursday, June 13: First Vote. Any candidate with fewer than 17 votes (five per cent) will be eliminated. Result announced at 1pm.
Sunday, June 16: Channel Four TV hustings (TBC).
Monday, June 17: 1922 Committee stages hustings event.
Tuesday, June 18: Second Vote. Any candidate with fewer than 33 votes (ten per cent) will be eliminated. 8pm: BBC TV hustings with Emily Maitlis.
Wednesday, June 19: Third Vote. The candidate in last place will be eliminated.
Thursday, June 20: Fourth Vote. The candidate in last place will be eliminated leaving just two (in theory).
Saturday, June 22: Decision opened to the party membership. Ballots distributed to 160,000 Conservative Party members.
Monday, July 22: Winner announced in the week beginning July 22.