Theresa May has rejected rivals’ claims that the next Tory leader must have supported a Leave vote in the EU referendum – saying people want more than “a Brexit prime minister”.
The home secretary promised to bring the Remain and Leave sides together and “govern for the whole country”.
Rival candidates Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove both said the winner must have backed Brexit.
Candidates have been setting out their stalls in a series of interviews.
Mrs May also suggested migration could rise ahead of the UK’s eventual exit from the EU, and said the status of EU nationals living in the UK would form part of the forthcoming negotiations.
Mr Gove, the justice secretary, defended his tactics in the face of criticism, telling Andrew Marr it would have been a “betrayal of this country” if he had allowed Boris Johnson to run.
The leadership contest was triggered by David Cameron’s decision to step down by October after he was defeated in the EU referendum.
Like the PM, Mrs May campaigned for a Remain vote, saying during the campaign EU membership made the UK more secure.
But she told ITV’s Peston on Sunday it was “not a question of ‘what was your view 10 days ago'”, promising to reconcile both sides of the debate and “move forwards”.
While talks to extract the UK from the EU and to strike trade deals would be “hugely important”, she said people were “not looking for a prime minister who is just a Brexit prime minister, but a prime minister who can govern for the whole of the country”.
The home secretary has a comfortable lead among MP nominations over her rivals Mrs Leadsom, Mr Gove, Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox.
But she dismissed suggestions that others should stand aside to present a unity candidate, saying she wanted a “contest” and that it was important party members “have their opportunity to have a say”.
Mrs May also dismissed an early general election for the new prime minister as “another destabilising factor” for the economy.
On immigration, she said she wanted to “guarantee the position” for EU citizens living in the UK – and of Britons living elsewhere in Europe – adding that this would be factored into negotiations over the UK’s exit package.
She said immigration needed to be brought down to “sustainable levels” but would not put a date on when it could come down to the tens of thousands, in line with Conservative Party targets.
Once a deal is struck with the rest of the EU, she said, “we may very well see in the run-up to that, people wanting to come here to the UK before that exit happens”.
Mrs May also said the UK had to finalise its “negotiating stance” before formally triggering the UK’s departure from the EU by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
But speaking on the Andrew Marr show, Mrs Leadsom said the UK should “get on with it”.
Mrs Leadsom, the pro-Brexit energy minister, faced questions about a 2013 speech in which she said leaving the EU would be “a disaster for our economy”.
She said she had been on a “journey” since making that speech and that David Cameron’s reform renegotiations with Brussels showed the EU was “just not reformable”.
She reiterated that the next Tory leader should have backed the Leave campaign, because it “has to be someone who believes in the opportunity of leaving the EU”.
Mr Gove, the justice secretary, made the same point in an interview in which he also responded to anger at last week’s dramatic u-turn in turning on Boris Johnson and announcing he would stand for leader himself.