TORY leadership candidates turned on Dominic Raab for trying to “trash democracy” after the former Brexit Secretary said he would be prepared to shut down Parliament and bypass MPs to secure Brexit.

Channel 4, which staged the live TV debate, put an empty podium for frontrunner Boris Johnson, who refused to take part.

He was taunted about his absence by Jeremy Hunt, who said it raised questions about his ability to take on the job of Prime Minister.

"Where is Boris?” asked the Foreign Secretary. “If his team won't allow him out with five fairly friendly colleagues, how is he going to deal with 27 European countries?" he asked to applause from the audience.

READ MORE: Jeremy Hunt: Holyrood majority not enough to force indyref2 

The sharpest exchanges came early, on Brexit, when the former Brexit Secretary insisted the option of proroguing Parliament should remain on the table to secure Britain's withdrawal from the EU.

"I don't think it is likely but it is not illegal," said Mr Raab, explaining: "The minute we telegraph to the EU – this was the fundamental mistake we made - we are not willing to walk away at the end of October we lose the best shot of getting a deal."

But this led to his rivals turning on him.

Rory Stewart said closing Parliament would be "deeply undemocratic" and "strike at the heart of our constitution".

Mr Raab intervened, telling the International Development Secretary the “most undemocratic thing” would be his suggestion to hold a citizens’ assembly, which the former Brexit Secretary denounced as the “Venezualan option”.

Mr Raab warned Parliament could not stop a determined prime minister, saying: "It is near impossible to stop a government that is serious."

But this drew a sharp response from Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, who told him: "I will defend our democracy. You cannot take Britain out of the EU against the will of Parliament."

Mr Hunt said proroguing Westminster to get a Brexit deal would be a “profound mistake” and would be a “fundamental misreading of what Parliament stands for and what the people of this country would accept”.

The strongest attack, however, came from Sajid Javid, who agreed it was Parliament’s democratic duty to deliver Brexit but he declared: “You don’t deliver a democracy by trashing democracy. We are not selecting a dictator of our country…

“To suggest you would suspend Parliament and put an end to our sovereign democracy to suit some goal to implement democracy is not right,” insisted the Home Secretary.

In, at times, passionate exchanges, Mr Stewart told his four colleagues they were engaging in a “battle of machismo” in trying to sound toughest on Brussels when they knew that a no-deal outcome was not deliverable because Parliament would block it.

"They think they are threatening something but a threat is not credible unless it can be delivered," insisted the Scot.

Mr Javid hit back, saying it was a "complete nonsense" to take away the threat of no-deal although he acknowledged not enough had been done to prepare for it.

"The number one mistake that was made was not planning for no-deal. I have never walked into a room without the ability to walk away without signing," he stressed.

Mr Hunt said the next PM had to be prepared to sit down and negotiate with Brussels to get a better deal than that negotiated by Theresa May.

READ MORE: People take to streets of Oban in All Under One Banner march in support of Scottish independence 

"It is fundamentally pessimistic to say we cannot do that," he declared.

Mr Gove said that he had the experience to renegotiate the controversial Northern Ireland backstop which proved the key stumbling block to getting the PM’s deal through Parliament.

"I would ensure we have a full stop to the backstop," he said.

Mr Raab, who quit as Brexit secretary over Mrs May's agreement, said that as a committed Brexiteer he could be relied on to deliver Brexit.

"I am the candidate most trusted to get us out of the EU by the end of October," he said.

Candidates were also asked about their greatest weakness.

Mr Gove said "impatience" before host Krishnan Guru-Murthy asked if it was hypocrisy, mentioning his recent admission to using cocaine.

"I made a mistake. I learnt from my mistake," insisted the Secretary of State.

Mr Raab said he was restless, while Mr Stewart admitted having "a lot of weaknesses", including being prone to changing his mind.

Mr Javid admitted he was "very stubborn" and added: "If you want to be prime minister you need to be ready to listen."

Mr Hunt drew on the junior doctor scandal when he was Health Secretary, saying he could "be better at communicating what you want to do".

Today, journalists at Westminster will quiz the candidates but, again, Mr Johnson is not expected to attend, while all six are set to appear before an MPs’ hustings.

Tomorrow, Mr Johnson will appear in the BBC’s live debate alongside his fellow contenders following the second vote, which will eliminate at least one more candidate. Other votes are due later in the week.

In other developments –

*David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, who backed Matt Hancock, the UK Health Secretary, in the first round, has come out for Mr Gove, saying his “track record in Government is of supporting Scottish interests and standing up for our United Kingdom”.

*Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who is backing Mr Hunt, warned the numbers were “easily there” within the Conservative Party to bring down the Government in a confidence vote, should it lead a drive towards a no-deal Brexit.

*Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party leader, said he expected Mr Johnson if he won the leadership contest would, at best, only be able to deliver a "rehash" of the PM's Brexit deal and that there appeared "little chance" of the Tories delivering on his pledge to take Britain out of the EU on October 31.