LONDON • Britain's leadership contest was blown open yesterday by reports that police were called to a "row" between front runner Boris Johnson and his partner, hours before campaigning was to begin to win over grassroots Conservatives.
The Guardian reported that officers were alerted early on Friday, after a neighbour said there had been a loud altercation involving screams, shouts and bangs at the south London property, shortly after Mr Johnson had secured his place in the final run-off to become Prime Minister.
The paper said late on Friday that Mr Johnson's partner Carrie Symonds could be heard telling the former London mayor to "get off me" and "get out of my flat".
London's Metropolitan Police said it responded to a call from a local resident but that "occupants of the address... were all safe and well".
Mr Johnson is the runaway favourite to beat Mr Jeremy Hunt, but will face questions over yesterday's incident when he and Mr Hunt kick off a month-long nationwide tour to win over the grassroots Conservatives, who have the final say.
Whoever takes the Tory party leadership in the week beginning July 22 - and therefore becomes Prime Minister - will then face the looming Brexit deadline of Oct 31.
The battle is likely to feature pledges from both contenders to get Britain out of the European Union safely and in one piece, succeeding where outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May repeatedly failed.
But the race might ultimately turn into a popularity contest between Mr Johnson - at times pugnacious but also affable with a tendency for gaffes - and the more diplomatic and low-key Mr Hunt.
The "row" was splashed across the front pages of most newspapers yesterday, and while bookmakers were still betting on Mr Johnson, pundits warned the incident could harm his chances.
"Much will depend on the next 24 hours and whether the audio said to have been recorded by a concerned neighbour emerges," reported the Times. "At the very least, it will ensure a leadership race that had started to look like a formality might in fact be something of more consequence."
After the MPs whittled down the original field of 13, it is now up to the 160,000 or so paid-up Conservative members to select the centre-right party's next leader.
The winner will need to succeed where Mrs May failed in getting a deal with the European Union through Parliament, or face the prospect of leaving without a deal, which MPs have warned could collapse the government and trigger a general election.
With arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party ahead in the polls, Mr Johnson is widely viewed as the one Conservative who could compete in the party's heartland.
A poll for The Daily Telegraph - the paper for which Mr Johnson writes a column - showed six out of 10 Brexit Party backers jumping over to the Conservatives should the man known simply as Boris take charge.
Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson were yesterday due to appear in Birmingham, central England, for the first of 16 "hustings" - occasionally rowdy events where candidates field audience questions.
Both have vowed to get better terms from Brussels - or walk away without any strings attached, but European leaders appear unmoved.
"Maybe the process of Brexit will be even more exciting than before because of some personnel decisions in London, but nothing has changed when it comes to our position," European Council president Donald Tusk said.