Tory leadership candidates have turned on “dictator” Dominic Raab after he refused to rule out suspending Parliament to push through Brexit by the end of October.
In the first televised debate of the campaign, the five candidates taking part all agreed the next prime minister had to take Britain out of the EU.
But there were sharp differences as to how that could be achieved.
Channel 4, which staged the debate, put an empty podium for frontrunner Boris Johnson who refused to take part.
He was taunted about his absence by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt who said it raised questions about his ability to take on the job of prime minister.
“Where is Boris? If his team won’t allow him out with five fairly friendly colleagues, how is is he going to deal with 27 European countries?” he said.
The sharpest early exchanges were however dominated by Raab’s insistence the option of proroguing parliament should remain on the table.
“I don’t think it is likely but it is not illegal,” he said.
“The moment that we telegraph to the EU we are not willing to walk away at the end of October we take away our best shot of a deal.”
International Development Secretary Rory Stewart said shutting down Parliament was “undemocratic” and “deeply disturbing” and would not work.
“Parliament is not a building. Parliament is our democratic representatives and they will meet regardless of what the prime minister wants,” he said to applause from the studio audience.
Hunt said it was the “wrong thing to do” while Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: “You don’t deliver democracy by trashing democracy. We are not selecting a dictator.”
Raab warned that parliament could not stop a determined prime minister, saying: “It is near impossible to stop a government that is serious.”
That drew a sharp retort from Environment Secretary Michael Gove who told him: “I will defend our democracy.
“You cannot take Britain out of the EU against the will of parliament.”