LONDON – Boris Johnson will face his successor as foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, in the final Conservative Party showdown to determine who takes over from Prime Minister Theresa May.
Their visions for Brexit are similar: Both want to deliver on the referendum result of 2016, both want to ditch or renegotiate the Irish backstop in the accord brokered by May, and both are prepared to contemplate a no-deal Brexit if they can’t get the changes they want.
The candidates were finalized on Thursday in two votes that eliminated Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Environment Secretary Michael Gove. Johnson and Hunt on Saturday began touring the country in a monthlong contest to persuade the party’s 160,000 members that they are the best man to lead. The new prime minister is expected to be announced during the week of July 22.
The favorite to succeed May, Johnson quit as foreign secretary last July over her Brexit deal. He was the highest-profile campaigner in the 2016 referendum and was mayor of London from 2008 to 2016. He was elected to serve the west London constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in 2015; he was MP for Henley for seven years before becoming mayor.
On Brexit: While Johnson has previously said Britain must leave the bloc on Oct. 31 with or without an agreement, he appeared to soften that line in a debate last Tuesday, saying a departure by then is “feasible” but refusing to guarantee it.
He has threatened to withhold the £39 billion ($50 billion) divorce bill if the EU doesn’t improve the terms negotiated with May and also wants to strip out the controversial Irish backstop. The plan is to discuss solutions for the border as part of the future trade negotiation, after Brexit but during a planned transition period. The EU has previously said no to similar proposals.
Johnson also says he is not aiming for a no-deal outcome but that in such a situation Britain could default to World Trade Organization standstill provisions under Article 24 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. That way it would retain tariff-free trade with the bloc while a new free trade agreement is brokered, he says. That is something that would require EU agreement, and it is open to objections from other WTO members.
Johnson has built support both with Tory moderates and ardent Brexiteers, and they have drawn different conclusions about the broad thrust of his Brexit policy — suggesting some of them will end up disappointed.
Other policies: Johnson advocates cutting business taxes and red tape. He has proposed tax cuts for higher earners by raising the threshold at which people start paying 40 percent income tax to £80,000 from £50,000. He also wants to boost transportation and broadband infrastructure and raise spending on schools and the police. He has pledged to put the environment “at the center” of his program for government.
He says nobody “sensible” would want a general election immediately, but some of his supporters have already begun war-gaming the possibility in the fall.
Also: Born in New York, Johnson gave up his American citizenship in 2016. He has published books on the Romans, London and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Hunt has been in the Cabinet since 2010. He was the U.K.’s longest-serving health secretary before taking his current job. He voted “remain” in 2016 but is now a Brexiteer.
On Brexit: He wants to renegotiate May’s deal, focusing on getting changes to the Irish backstop. He also says he would seek technological solutions that mean the backstop isn’t needed.
He says it will be “very challenging” to get the required changes by Oct. 31 and is open to a delay. That would be better than a no-deal exit, which would prompt a general election in which the Tories could be “annihilated,” he has warned.
Pitching himself as an experienced deal-maker, Hunt has also said he is prepared to walk away without a deal if there isn’t a prospect of one by Oct. 31 because that is the only way to focus the minds of EU negotiators.
The U.K.’s negotiating team should be expanded to include representatives of Scottish and Welsh Conservatives, the Democratic Unionist Party and the ardent Brexiteers in the Tory party’s European Research Group, he says. That would mean “no proposal we make would be a proposal that couldn’t get through the British Parliament,” which would give it “credibility,” he told LBC radio on Wednesday.
He also has suggested that the backstop is the only element he would change in May’s deal, and he wouldn’t quibble over the £39 billion exit bill. “We need to pare down to the minimum the requests we are making,” he said.
Other policies: He promises to “turbo-charge” the economy after Brexit to make it “the most high-tech, greenest, most pro-enterprise, pro-business economy in Europe.” Hunt, who was health secretary for six years, says spending cuts to social care went “too far” and he would seek to plow more money into the system. Another key pledge is to “abolish” illiteracy. He has ruled out a general election “until we have delivered Brexit.” On tax, he would ensure the first £1,000 of earnings every month don’t incur income tax or national insurance payments. He would focus on cutting the tax burden on the lowest-paid.
Also: Hunt is independently wealthy, earning about £15 million in 2017 from the sale of an educational listings company he founded, Hotcourses. He once mistakenly referred to his Chinese wife as Japanese.
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