Conservative leadership frontrunner Theresa May has dismissed suggestions that only a Brexit supporter can replace David Cameron as prime minister.
She has also demanded a “proper contest” for the Tory leadership, amid claims that one candidate should be given a clear run if they receive overwhelming support from the party’s MPs in the early rounds of voting.
I think that what people want to hear is what the arguments are and people putting those arguments togetherTheresa May
The Home Secretary said she was not taking “anything for granted”, adding there is a need for the arguments to be heard by Tory members.
Bitter recriminations over rival Michael Gove’s decision to pull the rug from under Boris Johnson’s leadership bid appear to have dented his prospects of taking on Mrs May in the final vote.
The Justice Secretary faces being pushed into third place by fellow Brexit campaigner Andrea Leadsom, whose support is growing among MPs.
Mrs May said: “I think there should be a contest.
“I think it’s important members have their opportunity to have their say and I think that what people want to hear is what the arguments are and people putting those arguments together.”
Mrs May also dismissed an early general election for the new prime minister as “another destabilising factor” for the economy.
With levels of support stronger than the combined total of her four rivals, Mrs May appears to be on course to take the keys to No 10.
And according to an ICM poll at the weekend, she was backed by 60 per cent of Tory voters, with Mr Gove second on ten points and Mrs Leadsom on six points.
Among party members, who will vote to decide the winner of the leadership contest, some 46 per cent said she would make the best prime minister.
Mrs May has also been backed by more MPs, who select the final two candidates to go on to the ballot paper, than any of the other candidates.
Although the poll puts Mr Gove ahead of Mrs Leadsom, bookmakers have slashed the odds on the junior minister making it through the knock-out stages in Parliament to go up against Mrs May in the head-to-head.
The first round of voting to whittle down the field of runners is being held tomorrow.
Mrs May backed a Remain vote, saying during the campaign that EU membership made the UK more secure.
But she insisted yesterday that it was “not a question of what was your view ten days ago”, promising to reconcile both sides of the debate and “move forwards”.
While talks to extract the UK from the EU and to strike trade deals would be “hugely important”, she said people were “not looking for a prime minister who is just a Brexit prime minister, but a prime minister who can govern for the whole of the country”.
She dismissed suggestions that others should stand aside to present a unity candidate, saying she wanted a “contest” and that it was important party members “have their opportunity to have a say”.
On immigration, she said she wanted to “guarantee the position” for EU citizens living in the UK – and of Britons living elsewhere in Europe – adding that this would be factored into negotiations over the UK’s exit package.
She said immigration needed to be brought down to “sustainable levels” but would not put a date on when it could come down to the tens of thousands, in line with Conservative Party manifesto targets.
Once a deal is struck with the rest of the EU, she said, “we may very well see in the run-up to that, people wanting to come here to the UK before that exit happens”.
Mrs May also said the UK had to finalise its “negotiating stance” before formally triggering the UK’s departure from the EU by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which takes about two years.