Guardian News and Media /London
Jeremy Hunt has said the Brexit deadline of October 31 should not be a “hard stop” and that Boris Johnson is posing a “stark choice”, between leaving the EU without a deal and a general election.
Hunt warned it would be wrong to commit now to leave the EU by Halloween, come what may.
He told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: “I want to make an argument that what Boris is offering – a hard stop at any cost, on October 31 – means that he is effectively committing the country to no deal … or an election, if parliament chooses to stop that. And my argument is, are those really the best that we as Conservatives can offer the country?”
Hunt’s comments contrasted with a fresh warning from his fellow leadership contender Dominic Raab yesterday that the Tory party would be “toast” if it failed to take Britain out of the EU by the end of October.
Hunt said he wanted to negotiate a new package with the EU27. “It’s not impossible to do this by October 31, but it will be difficult,” he said. “I’m not committing to an October 31 hard stop at any cost, because I don’t think you can make that guarantee.”
Hunt said recent discussions with EU leaders, in his post as foreign secretary, had convinced him there could be a negotiated way through the Brexit impasse.
“Approached by a British PM, someone they were willing to deal with, who had ideas to solve the Irish border, they would be willing to renegotiate the package,” he said.
“In particular, they’re prepared to consider whether you could get much more detail over the future relationship, so that you wouldn’t need the backstop.”
Earlier, Raab had highlighted the risks of “corrosion of public trust” for his party, with the Brexit party leading in several polls.
“The Tory party will be toast unless we’re out by the end of October. People need to wake up to this. We’ve seen from the Peterborough by-election, we’ve seen it from the European elections,” he said, referring to “the frustration, the scandal people feel” over the delays to Brexit.
“The Conservatives cannot win an election unless we’ve delivered Brexit,” he added, speaking to Sophy Ridge on Sky News.
Raab also again declined to rule out proroguing parliament, if as prime minister he believed a no-deal Brexit was the right course and MPs sought to block it.
“I don’t think it’s something we would want to do,” he said, “and I think it’s very unlikely. But what’s really scandalous about this, is where people have been trying to sabotage the will of the people, and break their promises left, right and centre.”
Brexit has dominated the early stages of the leadership debate. Michael Gove, who came third in the first MPs’ ballot on Tuesday, has suggested he would be willing to delay by a few weeks or months if necessary to get the right deal, but Johnson, who is the overwhelming frontrunner, has insisted he will leave on time.
Rory Stewart, Johnson’s fellow old Etonian, who picked up the support of the Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood yesterday, told the BBC he did not know what Johnson’s Brexit plan really was.
“This is the moment, in this leadership race, to say who – and it’s a very brutal question – who do you trust to be your prime minister? How is Boris going to deliver Brexit? How?
“I don’t even know what he believes – he won’t talk to me, he won’t talk to you, he won’t talk to the public,” he said, before reiterating his insistence that he would not take a Cabinet job if Johnson were to offer him one. “I would not serve,” he said.
Johnson did not taking part in yesterday’s TV debate, after warning he feared it could be “cacophonous” – but will join a similar event tomorrow night, after at least one more leadership contender has been knocked out.
Stewart said his approach would be to try to get the existing Brexit deal through parliament, telling MPs: “This is the last-chance saloon. Get it done.” If that failed, he would convene a citizens’ assembly to decide what should happen next.
“All these other people are just saying: I’m just going to go to Europe, and I’m going to shout, and I’m going to get us out, ‘Give me a deal,’” he said.
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