Boris Johnson has refused to answer questions about why police were called to his house in the early hours of Friday morning, in testy exchanges at the first hustings for the Conservative party leadership.
Tory members in Birmingham heckled the moderator, journalist Iain Dale, with cries of “move on, “as he tried to press Mr Johnson on the altercation at the south London home he shares with partner Carrie Symonds.
But Mr Johnson steadfastly refused to comment on the issue, launching instead into a rambling answer involving his determination as London mayor to have open platforms installed on new buses in the city.
When Mr Dale accused him of making it clear he would not answer questions on the incident, reported to police by a neighbour, the former foreign secretary replied: “I think that’s pretty obvious.”
There were isolated shouts of “answer the question” as Mr Johnson repeatedly refused to discuss whether the incident — first reported by the Guardian and featuring on most newspaper front pages on Saturday — reflected badly upon his character.
Mr Johnson, facing Jeremy Hunt in the first of 16 hustings across the country, was given a warm but not ecstatic reception by Tory activists, who are among the 160,000 party members who will choose the next party leader and Britain’s prime minister next month.
When he completed his opening statement, in which he insisted Britain would leave the EU by October 31, a minority of the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Mr Johnson suggested that a revamped version of Mrs May’s exit deal could yet win support at Westminster, claiming that the mood had changed among Tory and Labour MPs since the last Brexit vote on March 29.
“Both parties are really staring down the barrel of gun,” he said, arguing that the Liberal Democrats and Brexit party were both feeding off the failure of the Conservatives and Labour to deliver Brexit.
Mr Johnson then faced what he called “some hostile bowling” from the audience, including one Tory member who said that the former foreign secretary’s “f**k business” comment in relation to corporate opposition to a hard Brexit showed he had “a cavalier attitude” to jobs and investment.
He said he was referring to “powerful lobby groups who wanted to have a particular type of exit from the EU or no-exit from the EU”, insisting that he was a pro-business politicians.
Mr Johnson also faced a question about whether he would continue with the construction of the HS2 rail line that will link London and Birmingham; he dialled back his opposition to the project, but said he would review the business case for the line.
“I’m a passionate believer in transport infrastructure in this country,” he said. “I’d hesitate before simply coming in and scrapping a great national project.”
Mr Johnson also declined an invitation from an audience member to redesign the country’s drug laws, obliquely confirming he took cocaine when a student: “I think drugs are bad,” he said.
The majority of Tory activists at the International Convention Centre appeared sympathetic to Mr Johnson over the disclosure of details of his private life in the newspapers, although his critics suggested it showed that his campaign for the party leadership could yet implode.
Aman Bhogal from Bexley said: “People up and down the country will be thinking he’s a man much like us. It’s just human.” Mark Pratt from Walsall said: “Show me a person who hasn’t had an argument with their wife. It just shows he’s a human being, not a robot.”
But one senior backer of Mr Hunt said of Mr Johnson: “You give him 24 hours and he self-destructs. He just can’t help himself.” One Young Conservative who refused to be named said: “If you want to be leader of our country you have to have a private life which legally and socially acceptable.”
Meanwhile Mr Hunt, the self-proclaimed “underdog” in the contest, appeared on stage without a jacket and shirtsleeves rolled up, telling party activists that the Conservatives were in “a very serious situation”.
Mr Hunt said he would not hold an election before Brexit was delivered. “That would kill us,” he said. But he faced tough questions about whether — as a Remain voter — he felt strongly enough about Brexit to deliver it.
The foreign secretary promised his government would improve social care provision, invest in education and deliver “social justice”.
Scotland Yard confirmed that police attended the home shared by Mr Johnson and Ms Symonds, a former Tory staffer and environment campaigner, after reports by a neighbour of shouting and banging.
A spokesperson for Mr Johnson declined to comment on the matter. According to The Guardian, the former foreign secretary and clear favourite in the leadership contest was heard arguing with his partner Carrie Symonds, who reportedly told him to “get off me” and “get out of my flat”.
Ms Symonds was also allegedly reported to be angry at Mr Johnson for spilling red wine on a sofa. “You just don’t care for anything because you’re spoilt. You have no care for money or anything,” she said, according to the Guardian report.
Mr Johnson was reported to have told her in response to “get off my f***ing laptop”.
A neighbour of Ms Symonds was reported to have made an audio recording of the fracas, which has been reportedly heard by the Guardian. The individual was said to have called the police after failing to receive an answer to knocking on the door of the residence.
The Metropolitan Police said: “The caller was concerned for the welfare of a female neighbour. Police attended and spoke to all occupants of the address, who were all safe and well.
“There were no offences or concerns apparent to the officers and there was no cause for police action.”
Ben Wallace, the security minister and a close ally of Mr Johnson, has offered the only public response to the story. In a now-deleted post on Twitter about the Guardian report, he described it as a “non story” and “couple have row”.