Johnson gives in to pressure over TV debate with rivals

British Health Minister Matt Hancock leaving 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, after a weekly Cabinet meeting. He quit the battle to succeed Mrs Theresa May as Conservative Party leader yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
British Health Minister Matt Hancock leaving 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, after a weekly Cabinet meeting. He quit the battle to succeed Mrs Theresa May as Conservative Party leader yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Health chief quits race to succeed PM May, leaving 6 contenders

LONDON • Mr Boris Johnson, the front runner to replace Mrs Theresa May as Britain's prime minister, yesterday gave in to pressure to face the media over his Brexit plans as another of his rivals dropped out of the leadership fight.

Health Minister Matt Hancock quit the battle to succeed Mrs May as Conservative Party leader, saying the party was looking for a candidate for the present not the future, leaving six contenders, among whom Mr Johnson is the overwhelming favourite.

He won the backing of 114 of 313 Conservative lawmakers in the first round of voting on Thursday, way ahead of Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt, who was second with 43 while three others were eliminated.

The issue dominating the contest is how and when Britain will leave the European Union and who is best placed to solve the crisis that has plunged the political establishment into turmoil since the 2016 referendum to leave the bloc.

Mr Johnson said yesterday he will join a TV debate with his rivals once more of them have been knocked out of the contest next Tuesday.

After stalling for the past week on whether he would participate in the debates, Mr Johnson said he is prepared to take part.

FOCUSING ON PRESENT

I ran as the candidate of the future, but the party is understandably looking for a candidate for the unique circumstances we face right now.

HEALTH MINISTER MATT HANCOCK

"It is important that we have sensible grown-up debates," Mr Johnson told BBC Radio in his first broadcast interview of the campaign so far. "I'm more than happy to do the BBC TV debate on Tuesday."

Mrs May resigned as Conservative leader, having failed three times to get her divorce deal with the EU through Parliament.

The EU has repeatedly said it will not renegotiate that deal.

Rivals turned their sights on Mr Johnson, who has pledged that Britain will leave on Oct 31, whether or not a deal can be struck.

He maintains that if Britain is prepared for a no-deal Brexit, the EU will bend to his argument to remove the so-called Northern Irish backstop to prevent a return to a hard border with Ireland if there is no agreed future trade deal.

Mr Johnson was initially silent on whether he would take part in televised debates, the first of which is set for tomorrow, leading to accusations that he is avoiding difficult questions, in case any slip-up proves costly.

"We can have that debate only if our front runner in this campaign is a little bit braver in terms of getting out into the media, engaging in debates, engaging in the TV debate," Mr Hunt told BBC Radio.

 
 
 

"What would Churchill say if somebody who wants to be prime minister of the United Kingdom was hiding away from the media, not taking part in these big occasions?" The latter comment was a jibe at Mr Johnson, who has written a biography of Britain's World War II leader.

With Mr Johnson so far ahead in the first round of voting, there had been speculation in the British media that some rivals might withdraw to allow a more unified challenge to the man who led the official "Leave" campaign in 2016.

"I ran as the candidate of the future, but the party is understandably looking for a candidate for the unique circumstances we face right now," Mr Hancock said as he pulled out of the race. "I will talk to all the other candidates about how these values can be best taken forward."

A second round of voting among lawmakers takes place on Tuesday as the candidates are whittled down to a final two before 160,000 Conservative grassroots members choose the next leader by the end of next month.

Mrs May's potential successors have all said they could find the solution to the Brexit crisis which eluded her.

Parliament has indicated it will try to stop a no-deal Brexit, which investors warn would hurt financial markets and shock the world economy. But some of those running to lead the Conservatives, including Mr Johnson, say it may be the only way for Britain to leave the bloc without further delay.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2019, with the headline 'Johnson gives in to pressure over TV debate with rivals'. Print Edition | Subscribe