THE men who would be prime minister were in Bournemouth to face the Tory membership.

While foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt arrived shortly after 8.30am for a walk along the prom, front runner Boris Johnson was not seen locally until it was almost time for the leadership hustings at the Pavilion Theatre yesterday evening.

Mr Hunt was greeted by a group of the party faithful as he arrived with wife Lucia. He went largely unheeded by the morning joggers, cyclists and tourists as he made his way along the prom.

It was not until his visit was nearly over that he exchanged words with two ordinary members of the public – who didn’t recognise him.

The morning news had led with comments by the Japanese foreign minister that he was “very concerned” about the possible impact of a no-deal Brexit on the 1,000 Japanese companies in the UK.

Mr Hunt has cited examples of businesses that could go to the wall under a no-deal Brexit, but still refused to rule it out.

“You’ll never get the right deal if you take no deal off the table,” he said.

“It’s the first rule of negotiation. You have to be willing to walk away and I do think that a no-deal Brexit would be disruptive but in the end, as a country, we would cope.

“We’ve had much tougher challenges in our history but it wouldn’t be my first choice just because of those pressures on business and the risk you have, if your strategy is a no-deal strategy, is that you trip us into a general election, Jeremy Corbyn gets into number 10 and then we’ll have no Brexit at all.

“That’s why what you need is a prime minister you can trust to actually negotiate a deal and I’m that person.”

With thousands of jobs in Dorset relying on financial services, did he not fear leaving the EU without a deal?

“There will be many sectors that would suffer. Financial services is one of them. But actually in the end we have to have confidence as a country and we would find a way to flourish and prosper even without a deal – but it would be bumpy,” he said.

It has been a dismal few weeks for the Conservatives locally. They failed to take control of the new Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council, which people once expected to have an inbuilt Tory majority. In the European Parliament elections for the South West, they came fourth, behind the Brexit Party, Liberal Democrats and Greens.

Mr Hunt said he could transform the party’s fortunes.

“I’m the person who’s most likely to lead us out of the European Union by the end of October because I’m a negotiator, a businessman by background, an entrepreneur, and that’s what we need to get us out of this difficult situation,” he said while walking up the West Cliff zig-zag.

“Really what happened here in Bournemouth is not about local issues, where I think the Conservatives have done a fantastic job. We’ve got some brilliant local councillors and indeed I met some of the ones that lost their seats as well.

“It was about national issues and we in Westminster, I’m afraid, have to take responsibility for what happened. We’re going to turn that round and we’re going to sort out the issues on a national stage leave the European Union and then get the Conservatives back into power in Bournemouth.”

Mr Hunt had just announced his policy of writing off tuition fee debt for entrepreneurs employing more than 10 people. Did he not feel that was unfair on others who had to pay off their debts while in jobs such as nursing and teaching?

“I understand that, but as Conservatives we believe that the way that you get funding for the education sector and the health sector is to encourage people to set up on their own, create jobs, create wealth,” he said.

“Our young graduates are the most talented people we have in the country and at the moment the worry about repaying tuition fees is putting them off becoming the next Bill Gates, the next Mark Zuckerberg, the next Richard Branson and so this is about a relatively small number of people who could have a huge impact on our economy and that’s what I want to help.”

On reaching West Cliff Green, the foreign secretary, his wife and police protection were taken in two Range Rovers back to the Pier Approach. It is the same trip that deputy prime minister John Prescott and his wife Pauline were once mocked for taking in a Jaguar.

Back on the seafront, holiday-makers Andrew and Ann-Marie Roberts did not at first recognise the man posing with a 99 ice cream for photographers.

Mr Roberts said: “As soon as he said he was Jeremy, I kind of looked up and took note of him.” He seemed a “charming, pleasant man”, said the couple, from the staunchly Labour borough of Haringey in North London.

But Mr Roberts said he had no strong view on which of the Tories would be a better leader.

“It’s hard to have a view because we can’t really vote on it, can we? So you’ve kind of got to wait and let them decide who they want to be their leader and then it’s up to us when the general election comes, or Brexit or whatever, to make our own decisions,” he said.

“At the moment, you’ve just got to stand back and let them slog it out.”