Ex-foreign secretary and former London mayor Boris Johnson, the runaway favorite of Tory lawmakers, faced off with Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary, at a Conservative conference in central England's Birmingham.
Opening his address with a focus on delivering Britain's stalled exit from the European Union, Johnson told the audience "We need to get Brexit done" and be prepared to leave the EU without a withdrawal deal in place.
"I am here to tell you that in all confidence we can turn this thing around," he said. "I am utterly convinced that with the right energy and the right commitment, common sense will prevail. But just in case it does not, we must prepare to come out anyway."
Johnson has won backing from the Conservative Party's die-hard Brexiteers by insisting the U.K. must leave the bloc on the rescheduled date of Oct. 31, with or without a divorce agreement with the EU to smooth the way.
Both Johnson and Hunt said they would succeed in seeing Britain out of the EU, a challenge that defeated Prime Minister Theresa May. She quit as Conservative leader earlier this month after repeatedly failing to win Parliament's backing for her Brexit deal and will leave 10 Downing Street when her successor is selected.
Hunt pitched himself as the better negotiator, warning that "catastrophe awaits," if the wrong leader is sent to Brussels for talks with EU leaders. "If we send the wrong person, there's going to be no negotiation, no trust, no deal, and if Parliament stops that, maybe no Brexit," he said. "Send the right person, and there's a deal to be done."
For the party conference in Birmingham, both contenders were given time to make a short speech before answering questions from the host and audience members. The Saturday "hustings" was the first of more than a dozen such party meetings set to take place across Britain in coming days.
Johnson refused to comment when asked about a police visit early Friday to the London home he shares with partner Carrie Symonds after a neighbor reported an altercation. The incident dominated news headlines in Britain on Saturday.
The Guardian newspaper said neighbors reported hearing screaming, shouting and banging inside the home. The responding officers found all the occupants "safe and well" and no legal offenses were committed, police said.
Johnson said the public could judge his character and ambition by his track record as London mayor and his plans for the country. Johnson and Hunt are the final two from a field of 10 contenders that was winnowed down in a series of votes by party lawmakers. About 160,000 party members across Britain will decide who wins in a by-mail vote.
The winner of the runoff, due to be announced the week of July 22, will become the new Conservative leader and replace Theresa May as Britain's next prime minister.