LONDON – Boris Johnson, the front-runner to replace Theresa May as U.K. prime minister, warned Conservative Party colleagues that they face “extinction” if they didn’t deliver Brexit by the current deadline of Oct. 31.
“We are facing an existential crisis and will not be forgiven if we do not deliver,” Johnson told a private meeting of Tory members of Parliament, according to his office. “There is a very real choice between getting Brexit done and the potential extinction of this great party.”
He was speaking after the Conservatives set out an accelerated procedure for selecting a new leader that will see a prime minister in place by July 26. The party has raised the bar for MPs who wish to run for the job, and two dropped out Tuesday, narrowing the field slightly to 11.
The first hustings of the election was held behind closed doors in Parliament on Tuesday evening, as four of the candidates — Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart, Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom — addressed the One Nation caucus of Conservatives who want the party to focus on unifying issues of social policy, rather then Brexit.
Johnson, who has kept a low profile in recent weeks, has yet to set out how he would achieve his goal, but according to Nicky Morgan, one of the MPs who organized the event, he said the existing deal negotiated by May didn’t work. He also said that while he didn’t want a no-deal Brexit, the country should prepare for one. He ruled out a second referendum or a general election.
“Sajid was very responsible, Rory was a direct pitch to colleagues, Boris was more subdued, and Andrea was more optimistic,” Morgan said.
Morgan said Johnson had told the room that if the U.K. delayed its departure from the European Union past Oct. 31, “the relevance of the referendum starts to wane.” That is a comment that could come back to haunt him if Britain does end up seeking a further delay. His office didn’t deny he had made the remarks.
But Johnson has set his face against such a delay. According to his office, he told the room that the party needed to “stop banging on about Brexit and put that balling baby to bed, pacify it and recapture the political agenda.”
In an indication of the concerns that MPs in the room had about what a future prime minister might do, all were asked whether they would suspend Parliament to stop it from trying to block their Brexit plans. All four ruled the option out. All also rejected the idea of an alliance with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
Javid, the home secretary, warned his colleagues against choosing “a leader who thinks the way to lead is to exploit divisions,” according to his office. Talking about the drubbing the Tories had received from Farage in last month’s election, he said, “We will not beat the Brexit Party by becoming the Brexit Party.”
May is due to submit her resignation as Conservative leader on Friday, though she will stay on as prime minister until her successor is elected. With the party in turmoil about Brexit, multiple members of Parliament have seen their chance. At the start of Tuesday, 13 MPs had declared they were running, and others were waiting in the wings.
Faced with the prospect of the contest dragging on for months at a time of national crisis, a meeting of the executive of the rank-and-file Conservative MPs’ 1922 Committee decided to raise the bar for entry and accelerate the voting process. Two candidates, James Cleverly and Kit Malthouse, dropped out in the course of the day.
There was to be a further closed-door hustings from the One Nation group on Wednesday. In a speech Wednesday morning another of the candidates, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, was to say the government should encourage the development of a domestic telecommunications industry that would mean it didn’t face the difficult choice about whether to use equipment supplied by Huawei Technologies Co.
Under the rules set out by the Conservatives, any MP wanting to be leader now needs eight supporters to put their name in. Nominations will open and close June 10, and Conservative MPs will whittle the field down to two in a series of votes.
Voting among MPs is planned for June 13 and then June 18, 19 and 20. Candidates will need to get at least 16 votes to survive the first round, and 32 to survive the second. After that, the candidate with the fewest votes will be excluded in each round.
Conservative grassroots members will have a month, from the week beginning June 22 to the week beginning July 22, to choose the winner out of those two in a postal ballot.
It is the first time the Conservatives have chosen a prime minister in this way. In 2016, May became leader by default when Leadsom dropped out of the race.