By Alistair Smout
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.”
The European Union says the withdrawal agreement it reached with May is final and cannot be renegotiated. Many Brexit supporters oppose it because of a “backstop” that requires Britain to adopt some EU rules indefinitely unless a future arrangement is found to keep the land border in Ireland open.
Hunt, who voted in the 2016 referendum to stay the European Union, said he try for a new agreement that would take Britain out of the EU customs union while “respecting legitimate concerns” around the Irish border.
Rivals for the top job were quick to reject Hunt’s views.
“Political suicide actually lies in not having a clean break from the EU and not leaving on the 31st October,” Esther McVey, a lawmaker who is standing for the leadership as a Brexit hardliner, said in a tweet.
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. Ten candidates have said they are in the running so far.
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 favor 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.
Under laws now in effect, Britain will automatically leave the EU on Oct. 31 without an agreement unless parliament approves one first, the EU grants an extension, or the government revokes its decision to leave.
“No deal has remained the legal default so therefore the government has continued to responsibly prepare for it,” a spokesman for May told reporters.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff)