Foreign minister Jeremy Hunt took aim at rival Boris Johnson’s “do or die” pledge to take Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31 no matter what, saying the frontrunner to become prime minister could destroy Brexit and the government.
The race to replace Prime Minister Theresa May has heated up this week, with Hunt stepping up his criticism of Johnson, who has responded by hardening his promise to deliver Brexit at the end of October, with or without an agreement with the bloc.
More than three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, Brexit is dominating the race to become leader of the Conservative Party leader and the next prime minister.
The winner could face a battle with parliament, which rejected May’s deal three times and is opposed to a so-called no-deal Brexit.
On Tuesday, Johnson said Britain would leave the EU on Halloween “do or die, come what may”, pledging to negotiate a new deal with the bloc to be able to win over parliament.
But Hunt, who also wants Brexit to happen at the end of October but would extend the deadline if a deal was in sight, criticised the stance, saying it could open the way to opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn winning a new election.
“If we do it in this kind of ‘do or die way’, the risk is that we’ll just trip into a general election because parliament will stop it, as they did in March, and then we’ll have Corbyn in Downing Street, and there will be no Brexit at all,” Hunt told BBC radio.
But he also turned his fire on the EU, agreeing with a caller that the bloc had treated Britain “like dirt”.
“That’s exactly what I feel and I don’t think they have shown respect for us at all,” he said.
The two contenders are now hoping to win over the governing Conservatives’ around 160,000 members, whose votes will ultimately decide who becomes prime minister. However, they will also be keeping an eye on the Northern Irish party which props up the current government.
Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said she had a good relationship with both Hunt and Johnson but added: “It’s very important that we leave on the 31st of October.”
Both contenders say they do not want a no-deal Brexit, but concede that, if needed, they would lead Britain out of the bloc without a deal with differing levels of enthusiasm – a scenario businesses say could cripple the world’s fifth largest economy.
Labour, and other opposition parties have said they will not allow a new government to preside over a no deal, with some lawmakers suggesting the new prime minister could face a no confidence motion almost immediately.
“We’re confident that no deal can be prevented in parliament,” said a spokesman for Corbyn. “We will use whatever means necessary to prevent a no deal outcome.”