Tory leadership candidates have insisted there must be no unchallenged “coronation” for frontrunner Boris Johnson at the latest round of hustings.
Senior cabinet ministers were reported to have hatched plans to force other candidates to withdraw from the race after Johnson comfortably topped the poll in the first ballot of MPs this week.
Among the rivals condemning the revelation were the home secretary, Sajid Javid, and Rory Stewart, who both insisted there must be a proper contest.
As he arrived at leadership hustings for the party grassroots organised by the National Conservative Convention on Saturday, Javid said senior figures should learn from the mistakes from the last leadership contest in which Theresa May went through without opposition after Andrea Leadsom dropped out.
“The party and the country deserve a good choice,” he told reporters outside the event. “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.”
Stewart, the international development secretary, said: “The members of the Conservative party, who are wise, sensible, experienced people, deserve to have a choice.
“We should have learned from the last time round coronations are not the way to do democratic politics.”
Johnson, who has been criticised by his fellow candidates for his reluctance to appear on television debates and submit to greater public scrutiny, avoided reporters after his Range Rover parked at a side door at a London hotel where the event was held.
Stewart, something of an outsider in the contest and among the keenest critics of Johnson, accused the frontrunner of adopting a presidential approach.
“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.
On Sunday, Channel 4 will represent the former foreign secretary and London mayor with an empty podium after he declined an invitation to participate in a television debate with his five remaining rivals.
Earlier, the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab lashed out at Johnson, claiming that party members would reject a leader who could be viewed as part of the “privileged elite” and questioning his “mettle” to be prime minister.
Asked how he would stop Johnson from winning as he left he hustings, Raab said: “We should have proper scrutiny of everyone. The longer this goes on, the more the underdog gets their shot.”
The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, took a less critical approach, refusing to say whether Johnson should take the blame for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention in Iran.
On her latest decision to go on hunger strike – which her husband will also take part in from London – he added: “Our message to Iran is whatever the disagreements you may have with the United Kingdom, there is an innocent woman at the heart of this.”