LONDON (Reuters) – Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it would be “political suicide” for Britain to pursue a no-deal Brexit, becoming the most senior figure vying to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May to rule it out and drawing a battle line with rival contenders.
Hunt’s remarks put him at odds with most other candidates including the frontrunner, Hunt’s predecessor as foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who has said Britain should quit the EU with or without a deal by the end of October.
May has announced plans to step down after repeatedly failing to secure parliament’s approval for her deal to leave the EU, setting up a contest in her ruling Conservative party to succeed her in the coming weeks.
That contest could determine how or even whether Britain leaves the EU, or whether it would face a new national election with its major political parties divided and shaken by Brexit.
Pitching himself in contrast to Johnson and others who insist leaving the EU without a deal must remain on the table, Hunt said any such move would be blocked by lawmakers and trigger a national election.
“Trying to deliver no deal through a general election is not a solution; it is political suicide,” Hunt wrote in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph. “A different deal is, therefore, the only solution – and what I will pursue if I am leader.”
CHANGE THE EXIT AGREEMENT
Under the party’s rules for picking a new leader, Conservative lawmakers will select a short list of candidates and put them to the party’s members for a vote.
The party is deeply split over Brexit. Many of its lawmakers oppose a no-deal exit, which businesses say would be catastrophic, while party activists are widely seen as more willing to support leaving with no agreement.
The Conservative Party had a disastrous showing in European elections at the weekend, losing most of its support to a new Brexit Party, which topped the poll while calling for a swift no-deal exit from the EU.
Other parties that want to halt Brexit altogether also surged in the vote, leaving little space in the middle for Britain’s two main traditional parties, the Conservatives and Labour, both of which had campaigned in favour of a compromise.
Labour has since edged closer to a position that would make it possible to call off Brexit, saying a public vote – either a new national election or second referendum – is the way to reunite the country. Several of its senior figures have called on its leadership to go further and openly call for a new referendum in which the party would campaign to stay in the EU.
Britain voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU, but has failed in the intervening years to come to agreement on its future relationship with the bloc.
Although Hunt voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum, he now says he now believes no deal is better than no Brexit. But he said parliament would pass laws to stop a government willingly leaving the EU with no deal.
“The only solution to the extremely difficult situation we’re in… is to change the Withdrawal Agreement,” Hunt told BBC radio.
The European Union says the withdrawal agreement it reached with May is final and cannot be renegotiated.
Many Brexit supporters in Britain oppose it because of a “backstop” that requires Britain to adopt some EU rules indefinitely unless an unspecified future arrangement is found to keep the land border in Ireland open.
Hunt said he would seek to take Britain out of the customs union while “respecting legitimate concerns” around the Irish border. The EU wanted to resolve Brexit, so could be open to renegotiation of the backstop, which could be aided by the formation of a new negotiating team, he said.
Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff