Boris Johnson, front-runner to be the U.K.’s next prime minister, has insisted he wants to take the country out of the EU on October 31-but didn’t give a cast-iron guarantee.
In a second TV debate between the five remaining candidates to become Conservative Party leader and hence prime minister, Johnson said it was “eminently feasible” for the U.K. to leave the EU by the October 31 deadline, itself an extension of the original March deadline.
Challenged to guarantee the date, Johnson replied: “If we allow 31 October to come and go as we let March come and go, I think the public would look on us with increasing mystification.”
Johnson’s opponents-environment secretary Michael Gove, international development secretary Rory Stewart, home secretary Sajid Javid and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt-were also challenged on the Brexit date, and whether they would be prepared to take the U.K. out of the EU without a formal withdrawal agreement.
The failure to get parliament to agree to an exit deal with the EU lay behind the downfall of previous Prime Minister Theresa May, who is currently serving her notice period while the contest to replace her is under way. But leaving without one could cause an economic downturn and a diplomatic rupture between the U.K. and its closest neighbors.
Javid said the October 31 deadline “focused minds” whereas both Gove and Hunt said extra time may be needed to negotiate with the EU and get a deal through parliament. Stewart, a staunch opponent of leaving with no deal and Johnson’s most vocal critic in the contest, was more pessimistic and said his colleagues lacked realism. They were instead “staring at the wall and saying ‘believe in Britain,'” Stewart said.
The contenders also clashed on the Irish border, public service cuts, climate change and Islamophobia. The five candidates did agree on one thing: they ruled out calling a general election until Brexit is resolved.
Former Brexit minister, Dominic Raab, was eliminated following a vote among Conservative Party MPs before the debate. Another vote will follow today.
EU officials think all the candidates are being unrealistic, and that the idea of a no-deal Brexit is “increasingly likely,” reported the BBC’s Europe editor.
Meanwhile, at a private breakfast on Tuesday June 18, Johnson, an outspoken euroskeptic and key figure in the campaign to leave the EU in 2016, tried to win over senior business leaders.
Following reports last year that while in government, Johnson had exclaimed “f*** business” when asked about corporate leaders’ opposition to a no-deal Brexit, this week he offered tax cuts and promised a pro-business agenda as prime minister, reported The Financial Times.
But despite his claim that his eight-year stint as mayor of London had shown a pro-business agenda, senior executives present again voiced concern at his casual approach to Brexit and a possible no-deal exit.