Boris Johnson has promised to immediately re-negotiate the UK’s divorce from the EU as he formally launched his bid to become prime minister on Wednesday (12 June).
Promising to “unite this country and unite this party”, Johnson stated that “after three years and two missed deadlines, we must leave the EU on 31 October”.
Johnson is the frontrunner to replace Theresa May, boasting the support of more cabinet ministers than any other candidate, and is popular with party activists. But he remains a deeply divisive figure for many in his party who say that he is gaffe-prone and unsuitable for high office.
Critics also point to Johnson’s two unsuccessful years as foreign minister in May’s government before resigning over her Brexit strategy last summer.
Johnson, who led the successful Vote Leave campaign ahead of the June 2016 referendum, is promising to re-negotiate the UK’s exit terms from the EU, but refused to go into specifics on what that would involve.
He played down the prospect of a no deal scenario, commenting that “I am not aiming for a no-deal outcome, I don’t think we can end up with any such thing,” but added that it was “only responsible to prepare vigorously and seriously”.
“It’s only if we have the guts and the courage to get ready for it that we will carry any conviction in Brussels and get the deal we need,” he said.
Most of the ten leadership candidates have promised to take the UK out of the EU with or without an agreement and have criticised May for ruling out a no deal Brexit and negotiating two delays to the UK’s departure from the bloc.
At her campaign launch on Wednesday, former cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom said that leaving the EU on the October deadline was a “hard red line”.
However, Rory Stewart has dismissed the idea of negotiating a better deal as “a fairy story”, while finance minister Philip Hammond dismissed an October Brexit as “impossible”.
“It’s not sensible for candidates to box themselves into a corner on this,” Hammond told a Bloomberg conference.
In the UK parliament, meanwhile, the opposition Labour party and a handful of Conservative rebels on Wednesday launched new plans to grab control of the parliamentary business agenda to make it impossible for a new government to take the UK out of the EU without a deal.
The new PM is expected to be installed on 22 July.The field of ten candidates will start to be whittled down on Thursday (13 June) when Conservative MPs hold their first round of voting.
The party’s 160,000 members will then decide the winner in a postal ballot on the final two candidates, with the result announced in the penultimate week of July.
That leaves very little time for the new leader to re-open and conclude talks with Brussels and then get a Brexit deal through the House of Commons.
The idea of renegotiation has also been rejected by EU leaders, with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stating that the Withdrawal Agreement brokered with May “is a treaty between the United Kingdom and the European Union,” and “has to be respected by whomsoever will be the next British prime minister”.
For his part, Irish premier Leo Varadkar described the idea of renegotiating a more UK-friendly Brexit deal as a “terrible political miscalculation”.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]