LONDON – Boris Johnson, the strong favorite to become Britain’s next prime minister, came under pressure from figures in his own party Sunday to explain reports of a domestic “row” that led to a police visit.
Although still heavily backed to beat Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to become Conservative Party leader, and therefore prime minister, a snap poll published in the Mail on Sunday suggested that the incident had cut his support.
The Guardian reported that police were alerted early Friday after a neighbor heard a loud altercation involving screams, shouts and bangs at the south London property, shortly after Johnson had secured his place in the final runoff to become prime minister.
The paper said Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, could be heard telling the former London mayor and foreign minister to “get off me” and “get out of my flat.” She is also heard saying Johnson had ruined a sofa by spilling red wine.
Johnson, 55, is currently divorcing his second wife.
Supporters of Johnson have said the action of his neighbor in releasing a recording of the row to the Guardian newspaper was politically motivated.
Neighbor Tom Penn, 29, said in a statement he had called the police because he was “frightened and concerned for the welfare of those involved.”
“Once clear that no one was harmed, I contacted the Guardian, as I felt it was of important public interest,” he said. “I believe it is reasonable for someone who is likely to become our next prime minister to be held accountable for all of their words, actions and behaviors.”
Penn said he voted to remain in the European Union three years ago, but that was the extent of his involvement in politics.
Johnson refused to answer questions about the incident on Saturday, the first day of the monthlong contest to win over Conservative grassroot members, saying, “I don’t think people want to hear about that kind of thing.”
He instead tried to focus on his policies, saying, “We need to get Brexit done” and promising to prepare Britain for a no-deal exit from the EU if a deal cannot be reached.
Hunt told Sky News on Sunday that “someone who wants to be prime minister should answer questions on everything.”
Trade Minister Liam Fox — who is backing Hunt for leader — told BBC1’s “The Andrew Marr Show,” “I think it is always easier to just give an explanation.”
Another Hunt supporter, Alan Duncan, the minister of state for Europe and the Americas, told the Guardian that his former boss now had a “big question mark over his head.” Johnson had shown a “lack of discipline” throughout his career, he added.
According to the Survation poll in the Mail on Sunday, Hunt is now the preferred candidate to become prime minister among voters for all parties, after Johnson suffered a 7 percent decline in support.
His lead over Hunt with Conservative voters had been slashed from 27 percent to 9 percent since Friday, the poll suggested.
But only the Conservative Party’s 160,000 members get to choose between Johnson and Hunt. And their support for Johnson appeared undimmed Saturday at the first of a series of hustings — internal party debates to decide the new leader.
The Conservative members in the central English city of Birmingham gave Johnson a standing ovation and loudly heckled interviewer Iain Dale as he quizzed Johnson over Friday’s domestic incident.
“Stuff happens at home all the time. … Someone spills the wine — we can’t really be making headlines out of that,” said supporter Hasnain Ahmed, 23. “What’s important is what’s this guy going to be delivering for you in Brexit.”
With Sunday marking the three-year anniversary of the vote to leave the EU, the issue still dominates British politics.
Hunt also received a warm reception, promising that if he couldn’t strike a Brexit deal with the EU, “then I will leave without a deal.”
“I was probably leaning towards Boris but I was very impressed with what Jeremy Hunt said today,” said Tory councilor Karen Shakespeare. “He surprised me with his directness and honesty, so I have to say I am now leaning very heavily towards Jeremy Hunt.”
Johnson also came under scrutiny Sunday for his relationship with Steve Bannon, the controversial former adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump.
Footage published by the Observer showed Bannon claiming that he had helped craft Johnson’s resignation speech as foreign minister last year.
The pair got to know each other when both were in office, and were reported to have met again in an unofficial capacity last summer.
Johnson said at the time that “the so-called relationship” with Bannon was a “lefty delusion” and his office dismissed the latest claims of a working relationship as “totally preposterous to the point of a conspiracy.”