The UK education secretary, James Cleverly, has said he would be open to Boris Johnson joining a Liz Truss-led government if she was “comfortable” with it.
Cleverly, who is supporting the foreign secretary in the race for No 10, called Johnson an “incredible” politician but said it was not a decision for him to take.
“He’s an incredibly talented politician. Whether he would want to serve after the bruising that he’s got at moment that might be another matter, but it’s not for me to start dictating to Liz [Truss] who she puts into her cabinet,” Cleverly, one of Johnson’s staunchest defenders, told Sky News.
“I’ve worked with him for years, I’ve supported him and I continue to regard him as incredible, effective politician.”
Asked if he would welcome Johnson to a senior role in government, Cleverly added: “I would be comfortable if she [Truss] is.”
More than 9,000 Conservative party members are reported to have signed a petition calling for Johnson to be put on the leadership ballot.
Cleverly’s comments come ahead of the first head-to-head TV debate between Truss and rival Rishi Sunak hosted by the BBC on Monday night. The two Tory leadership hopefuls have been engaged in bitter clashes over immigration, China and the economy ahead of Monday’s clash.
Cleverly accused Sunak of being late to the threat posed by China after the former chancellor unveiled plans to close 30 Confucius Institutes, which promote the teaching of Chinese language and culture, in the UK.
Cleverly told Times Radio: “She’s been talking about these for a long time. So I’m very glad that Rishi’s now talking about the issues that Liz has been talking about for quite some time, and of course we do need to look at China’s influence, not just on the world stage but here in the UK.”
Cleverly, who said he would “love” to remain as education secretary in a Truss government, added: “I would say we have already been looking at the influence that China has in our education system. This is not new, it might be new to the people on Rishi’s campaign team, but it’s not new to anyone that’s worked in the education or the Foreign Office.”
But the health and social care committee chair, Jeremy Hunt, a former Tory leadership candidate who is backing Sunak, said the former chancellor was right to focus on China.
The former health secretary also suggested Sunak was ahead of Truss in understanding the pressures facing the NHS.
Hunt told Sky News: “I do give him credit that of the two candidates he is the first that has actually spoken about the NHS and he has used the word emergency, and I think that is very important because that is what it feels like on the frontline at the moment. That is what it feels like for some of the people who are waiting for their NHS care.”
He also defended Sunak’s plan to house migrants in cruise ships instead of hotels to save money, which has been criticised by Truss’s campaign.
“The truth is we have to be radical, we have to do things differently and we have to be courageous and Rishi Sunak to me has shown that he is willing to be courageous, in particular being upfront to Conservative party members, of whom I am one, who all to a person want tax cuts and say that is not possible at the moment, we can’t afford that right now,” Hunt said.
“I think that is the kind of courage that has persuaded me that he is the right man to be prime minister but the same courage and decisiveness is necessary, yes, when it comes to asylum policy, refugee policy as well.”