Theresa May sparks controversy as Tory contenders are put through their paces
Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom also faced challenging Sunday TV interviews.
The home secretary has come under fire for suggesting that EU citizens who currently live in the UK may have to leave after Brexit.
Theresa May is now the clear favourite to replace David Cameron and become next prime minister. She appeared on ITV’s Peston On Sunday as the various candidates for the Tory leadership took to the Sunday morning political shows.
May dismissed an early general election for the new prime minister as "another destabilising factor" for the economy.
She also said the status of EU migrants living in the UK - and of Britons living elsewhere in Europe - would be one of the factors to be negotiated as part of the exit package.
Asked if she would ideally be able to allow EU nationals inside the UK to stay forever, May replied: “Well, nobody necessarily stays anywhere forever.”
She added: “What’s important is there will be a negotiation here as to how we deal with that issue of people who are already here and who have established life here, and Brits who have established life in other countries within the European Union.”
Her stance drew immediate criticism from Yvette Cooper, the former shadow home secretary.
She said: “The Home Secretary’s words today will only have increased the anxiety felt by EU citizens currently living in the UK and British citizens living in Europe. Suggesting that their status is subject to the results of the negotiations adds to current uncertainty, which is being exploited by extremists running awful ‘go home’ campaigns.”
Cooper is among the signatories to open letter calling for immediate guarantees that EU Citizens would not be deported.
She has also written to the prime minister calling for “reassurance now for those who are already settled here” to stop racist campaigns from gaining traction across the UK.
Some Tory figures also baulked at May, with the leading Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie tweeting that her comments appeared to be “uncharacteristically cruel”.
Putting aside her failure to confirm what will happen to EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit, May emerged relatively unscathed from her clash with Peston.
Moments earlier, her closest rivals for the Tory crown experienced more bruising encounters on The Andrew Marr Show.
Gove was repeatedly quizzed over his alleged disloyalty to Boris Johnson and repeatedly defended his actions.
He said: “There will be people who will say all sorts of things; there has been personal criticism directed against me. I withdrew my support for Boris.
"Boris could have chosen to go on if he wished to. The fact that he didn't I think is telling.”
But Marr pressed on - at one point acknowledging the comparisons that have recently been made between the justice secretary and the star of political drama House of Cards.
"You are our Frank Underwood," the BBC presenter told Gove.
Leadsom was forced to explain why in 2013 she had warned of a “disaster” to the economy if the UK leaves the EU.
With the damaging story on the front of the Mail on Sunday, Leadsom claimed that she had always wanted “fundamental reform” of the EU and that the economic risks of Brexit had subsided since her warning.
Leadsom also faced tricky questions about the high numbers of Ukip supporters backing her campaign – and she raised many eyebrows when she would not say whether Nigel Farage would be part of her Brexit negotiating team.