LONDON (AP) – The two men vying to be Britain’s next leader traded verbal blows in a televised debate on Tuesday about who is more likely to break the country’s Brexit deadlock and lead the United Kingdom (UK) out of the European Union (EU).
About 160,000 Conservative Party members are voting for a successor to Prime Minister Theresa May, who announced her resignation last month after failing repeatedly to get Parliament to back her divorce deal with the EU.
The two finalists, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, both used their only televised debate to argue that they were best placed to negotiate Britain’s twice-postponed exit, currently scheduled for October 31.
Johnson, a populist former mayor of London whom polls suggest is the strong front-runner, argued that Britain leaving on schedule, with or without a divorce deal, is a “do or die” issue.
“Delay does not deliver a deal. A deadline will deliver a deal,” Johnson said, adding that his “energy and optimism” would help Britain “get back our mojo”.
Hunt, a long-serving but lusterless senior minister who is currently Foreign Secretary, said he offered experience, realism and a broader appeal than the divisive Johnson.
“I’ll be your Prime Minister whoever you vote for,” he said.
Unlike Johnson, Hunt said he would be prepared to delay Brexit for a short time in order to strike a deal with the EU.
That led Johnson to call Hunt “defeatist”. Hunt accused Johnson of setting a “fake deadline” and asked whether he would resign if he failed to deliver on his promise to leave by October 31.
Johnson did not answer.
“It’s not do or die is it?” Hunt snapped back. “It’s Boris in Number 10 (Downing Street) that matters.”
Hunt and Johnson have both vowed to succeed where May failed and take Britain out of the EU – even if that means leaving without an agreement on divorce terms and future relations.
Most businesses and economists think a no-deal Brexit would plunge Britain into recession as customs checks take effect at UK ports and tariffs are imposed on trade between the UK and the EU. But many Conservatives think embracing a no-deal Brexit may be the only way to win back voters from the upstart Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage.
Growing concern about the chance of a no-deal Brexit and signs that the British economy could be heading toward recession have weakened the pound, which fell on Tuesday to USD1.2440, near a two-year low.
For underdog Hunt, Tuesday’s showdown offered a chance to turn the contest around, though it may be too late. Ballot papers have already gone out, and many Conservatives have made their choice.
The two candidates also faced questions about a fierce row over leaked cables from Britain’s ambassador in Washington offering unflattering assessments of United States (US) President Donald Trump’s administration.
In the memos, Ambassador Kim Darroch called Trump’s White House dysfunctional, inept and chaotic.
The US President let rip with tweets branding Darroch “very stupid” and “a pompous fool”, and saying the administration would no longer deal with him.
Trump also renewed criticism of May’s handling of Brexit. In contrast, he has spoken warmly of both Johnson and Hunt.
Hunt reprimanded Trump, saying he should not meddle in Britain’s choice of ambassador.
“I have made it clear that if I am the next Prime Minister our ambassador in Washington stays,” Hunt said.
Johnson would not commit to keeping Darroch in his post.
“I have a very good relationship with the White House,” he said. “I think it’s very important we should have a close partnership, a close friendship with the US.”
As the two Conservatives battled over who was the bigger champion of Brexit, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn shifted his party’s position, calling on May’s successor to call a new referendum on Britain’s EU membership, in which Labour would campaign to stay in the EU.
In a letter to party members, Corbyn said that the new Prime Minister “should have the confidence to put their deal, or no-deal, back to the people in a public vote.”
“In those circumstances, I want to make it clear that Labour would campaign for Remain against either no-deal or a Tory deal that does not protect the economy and jobs,” he said.