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Former Conservative minister Jeremy Hunt has declined to say that Boris Johnson is an honest man in the wake of the Partygate scandal.
Mr Hunt was asked the question by Sophie Raworth on the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme.
In response, he twice replied that “talking about personalities is not a helpful thing to do”, despite being told by Ms Raworth that it was a “simple question”.
On the issue of whether Mr Johnson was the best person for the job, Mr Hunt said: “I hope he can turn things around.”
He did say, however, that he thought that Tory MPs should support the prime minister “in the situation we are now in” with the war in Ukraine.
And asked if Mr Johnson would take his party into the next general election, he said that he hoped so.
However, he acknowledged that the Tories have a “mountain to climb” to win back some of the party’s traditional voters.
Mr Johnson has been accused of presiding over Covid lockdown breaches on a “record-breaking scale” following the revelation police have now issued 100 fixed-penalty notices as part of an investigation into Downing Street parties.
Mr Hunt made it into the final two during the last Conservative leadership contest, ultimately losing to Mr Johnson.
He again refused to rule himself out of a future Tory leadership bid, but said that now was not the right moment.
The ex-health secretary, who has written a book detailing his thoughts on the failings within the NHS, told the programme: “I don’t rule out the return from my 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”.
He also warned his party it would be a “mistake” to put losses in this month’s local elections down to mid-term blues, saying it was failing to offer voters economic growth or the prospect of lower taxes.
He did, however, appear to back Mr Johnson in his row with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Government must be “prepared to do difficult things”, he insisted.
“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.
“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.”
But he played down the risks of a full-blown trade war with the EU, suggesting there was “goodwill on all sides”.
“I think we can understand why they’re annoyed that we’re asking to change this protocol so soon, but the protocol itself foresaw the possibility that you might have to change it in a situation where there was a risk to peace and stability, and we don’t have a functioning government in Northern Ireland,” he said.