Jeremy “Big Rice” Hunt, Dominic Raab and Rory Stewart submitted themselves to questioning this morning on the Sunday shows before going head-to-head in this evening’s Channel 4 leadership debate. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner to takeover as prime minister in just a few weeks time, did not appear. And will not appear on stage this evening either.
Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Hunt refused to commit to taking the UK out of the EU by the end of 2019.
The foreign secretary said the EU “would be willing to renegotiate” the exit agreement signed by Theresa May.
Asked if this meant Brexit could be delayed until 2020, he said: “A wise prime minister makes choices on the basis of the choices that are actually infront of them.
“If there is no prospect on October 31 of getting a deal that can get through parliament on October 31 then I would be prepared to leave without a deal.”
Hunt, who is battling to become the “alternative” to Johnson, said the “democratic risk” of no Brexit was “far worse” than a no-deal exit.
But added: “I am not committing to an October 31 hard-stop at any costs.”
Dominc Raab, who has committed to taking the UK out by October 31, said the Conservative Party would be “toast” if Brexit is delayed.
“The Tory Party will be toast unless we are out by the end of October. The Conservatives cannot win an election unless we have delivered Brexit, he told Sky News’ Ridge On Sunday.
Raab, who has said he would leave with or without a deal, defended his refusal to rule out suspending parliament in order to ensure it could not block Brexit.
“What is really scandalous here is the way that people are trying to sabotage the will of the people and break their promises left, right and centre to get us out of the EU,” he said.
“The big mistake we made in these negotiations was taking no-deal off the table. When we start ruling things out we only weaken our chances of getting a deal.
“All those candidates that are going weak at the knees and saying ‘I’m not sure about this and that’, they are sending a message to the EU that they can take us for a ride. We have had three years of that. It is time to get this done.”
But Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary who is backing Hunt’s campaign, said the numbers are “easily there” within the Conservative Party to bring down the government in a confidence vote if the next PM tried to force a no-deal Brexit.
She told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics while she would not take that step herself there were enough Tory MPs that would.
“There are number of colleagues who have gone public saying they would consider doing that, and there are a number I know of privately who say that, so any candidate needs to factor that in as well into their strategy for the next few months,” she said.
And as for Rudd’s relationship with Johnson? “I am still thinking very carefully about any lifts home from Boris,” she told Ridge.
Stewart told Marr he “would not serve” in a Boris Johnson cabinet. “I want to change this country and I want to challenge and say there are two completely different visions facing this country: Boris’s vision and mine. His strategy on Europe and mine. His vision on the economics and mine,” he said.
This is something of a u-turn from Friday when he told the BBC he would be “honoured” to serve Johnson.
Stewart, who on current numbers is on course to get knocked out of the contest in Tuesday’s second ballot, did pick up one more supporter today.
Tobias Ellwood, the defence minister, told Ridge said he was switching his support from Matt Hancock - who dropped out - to Stewart.
He said Stewart could “electrify” the contest. “I want to see Boris tested. The nation is watching this.”