LONDON (AFP) - The race to become Britain’s next premier heated up on Sunday (May 26) as Environment Secretary Michael Gove joined a crowded field of hopefuls with competing visions of how to finally pull their divided country out of the European Union.
Gove’s bid for the leadership in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum scuppered the chances of his one-time ally Boris Johnson, who is also running this time around and is seen as the current favourite.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s resignation announcement on Friday drastically raised the chances of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal on October 31 – the current deadline set by EU leaders.
Some of the eight contenders to replace May have said they will seek to negotiate changes to a draft divorce deal struck with the EU last year but would be prepared to proceed with a no-deal Brexit if refused.
The EU has said it is not prepared to renegotiate the terms of the deal.
A no-deal Brexit would face fierce opposition in parliament, including from MPs in the ruling Conservative Party who backed staying in the EU.
Finance minister Philip Hammond on Sunday warned he might even be prepared to take the drastic step of voting to bring down a future Conservative government in order to avoid no-deal.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that leaving the EU without a deal would have “very significant economic and fiscal impact on the country”.
“It would challenge not just me but many of my colleagues,” Hammond said.
Deal or no deal
May is bowing out with her legacy in tatters and the country in agony over what to do about the voters’ decision to abandon the European project after more than four decades.
Former foreign minister Johnson said on Friday in Switzerland: “We will leave the EU on October 31, deal or no deal”.
Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, an even more committed eurosceptic, has echoed that position. “We’d be willing to walk away from the negotiations,” he told Andrew Marr.
Esther McVey, another contender, set out a similar position. “We won’t be asking for any more extensions,” she said.
Raab and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced their candidacies in the Sunday papers. Hunt had campaigned against Brexit in 2016 but has since reversed his stance.
Gove confirmed his intention on Sunday, promising to unite the Conservatives.
Former House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, whose resignation on Thursday pushed May towards stepping down, has also confirmed she will run.
Rise of Brexit Party
The contest is being held against the backdrop of European Parliament elections that the new Brexit Party of the anti-EU populist Nigel Farage is expected to win with about a third of the vote.
Polls indicate the Conservatives will be punished for their bickering over Brexit and could finish as low as fifth – their worst result in a national election.
The candidates are also mindful of a party revolt over May’s fateful decision to court the pro-EU opposition with the promise of a second Brexit referendum.
The concession last week was designed to help ram her withdrawal agreement through parliament on the fourth attempt. But it won her no converts and sparked a party coup attempt that forced May to walk away before she was pushed out.
Parliamentary party members will begin whittling down the field of contenders to a final two from June 10. The finalists will then be put to a postal ballot of 100,000 party members in July.
The field grew further on Saturday when Health Secretary Matt Hancock entered the race with a promise to take a more moderate approach.
Leaving the European Union without an agreement is “not an active policy choice that is available to the next prime minister,” Hancock told Sky News.
He is viewed as one of the dark horses who might make it through a crowded field of more than a dozen names.
International Development Secretary Rory Stewart is also positioning himself as a more consensus-seeking alternative to Johnson.
“It now seems that (Johnson) is coming out for a no-deal Brexit,” Stewart told BBC radio. “I think it would be a huge mistake. Damaging, unnecessary, and I think also dishonest.”