Dominic Raab tried to shake off claims he was anti-feminist by underlining his commitment to abortion law as he launched his bid to be Tory leader.
The hardline Brexiteer stands alone among the 11 candidates to be the UK’s next PM in saying he is “probably not” a feminist.
But it was his rival for the job Jeremy Hunt who came under fire last week as he admitted he personally believed in cutting the abortion time limit from 24 weeks to 12.
But ex-Brexit secretary Raab said his public and private view was that the UK’s abortion law was “broadly right”.
He added: “I would want to see the number of unwanted pregnancies come down but I think education, public awareness and support for young people is the way to do it rather than change the legal limit. That’s my own view.”
Hunt has not advocated law changes but was criticised for his personal view.
Raab, who has been repeatedly challenged over a 2011 comment that some feminists are “obnoxious bigots”, was endorsed at the launch at London’s Southbank Centre, by former equalities minister Maria Miller.
Miller, who now chairs the Commons’ women and equalities committee, praised his commitment to introducing employment protections for new mums returning to work.
“This is all about equality for women and one day perhaps I will get Dominic to realise he is a feminist after all,” he said.
Raab acknowledged “Maria says she wants to persuade me to become a feminist” but fell short of giving any commitment.
With more than 20 MPs backing him, Raab is certain to make it through to the second round of the Tory leadership race, despite the rule changes introduced last week to whittle down the number of runners.
In a clear swipe at his Eurosceptic rival Boris Johnson, Raab criticised “bluff and bluster” and tried to paint himself as “the conviction Brexiteer”.
He also called for a “generational change in leadership” and took aim at frontrunner Johnson’s pledge to cut tax for workers earning more than £50,000.
Rabb said he would rather cut the lowest paid’s taxes rather than what would be interpreted as “the caricature that you’re the party of privilege and you are only in it to help the wealthy”.
Raab had earlier pledged to raise the employee’s National Insurance threshold to “take the lowest paid out of payroll taxes altogether”.
Raab also said Michael Gove, who is also a contender for the top job, should not step aside from the race after admitting using cocaine 20 years ago.
Spelling out his desire to break from the EU by October 31, without a deal if necessary, Raab also vowed to return to Brussels to make a “best final offer” to replace the controversial backstop.
And he said he would restore discipline in government and to bring forward a “Brexit budget” to cope with “this period of uncertainty”.
“We’re up against it and we won’t deliver Brexit with bluff and bluster,” he told the London event.
“I’m the conviction Brexiteer with the plan, the discipline and the focus to lead us out by the end of October.”
The Esher and Walton pointed to the European elections that were disastrous for the Tories and said the “survival of our party” was at stake if it did not sever the UK from the EU.
Spelling out how he would deliver Brexit, Raab said he would get a free trade deal rather than the “cage” of the Customs Union, and use technology and co-operation to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
An extra £20 billion in funding through the health service’s long-term plan would also ensure the Tories “remain the party of the NHS”, he said.
Fellow former Brexit secretary David Davis and MP Nadhim Zahawi were also among the attendees at the launch overlooking the London Eye.
Raab’s speech came as the race to replace Theresa May began in earnest.
Nominations to stand in the contest officially opened and Cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock were all formally launching their campaigns.