LONDON – Boris Johnson, the favorite to become British prime minister, said the chances of Britain leaving the European Union without a deal are “a million-to-one” even as he repeated his promise to leave the bloc without a deal by the end of October.
The race to replace Prime Minister Theresa May has heated up this week, with the foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, stepping up his criticism of Johnson, who has warned that he would execute a so-called no-deal Brexit if he fails to agree a deal with the EU.
More than three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, Brexit is dominating the race to become leader of the Conservative Party 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 no-deal exit.
At an election hustings on Wednesday, Johnson said the chances of leaving the EU without an agreement are remote because there is was a new mood among leaders on the continent and parliament to pass a revised Brexit deal.
“It is vital that we are prepare for a no-deal outcome if we are going to get the deal that we need. I don’t think that is where we are going to end up, I think it is a million-to-one against,” he said.
His comments came just a day after he promised to leave the EU at the end of October “come what may, do or die,” raising fears among more moderate lawmakers in Parliament that he will attempt to push through a no-deal Brexit.
Earlier, Hunt took aim at rival Johnson’s “do or die” pledge to take Britain out of the EU no matter what, saying this stance could destroy Brexit and the government.
Hunt, who also wants Brexit to happen at the end of October but would extend the deadline if a deal was in sight, said 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.
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.
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.”
Johnson played down the likelihood that he would prorogue, or suspend, Parliament until the Brexit deadline to prevent lawmakers blocking a no-deal Brexit, but did not entirely rule it out.
“I’m not attracted to archaic devices like proroguing,” he said.
Hunt, during the hustings, also took the opportunity to dismiss one of Johnson’s ideas that Britain could negotiate a standstill agreement to prevent trade tariffs with the EU if it left with no deal.
Hunt said he was not accusing Johnson of lying but said that his proposals under an international mechanism of Article 24 of the GATT Treaty could not realistically be introduced.
“We’ve got to knock this GATT 24 thing on the head. You can only get an agreement not to introduce tariffs if both sides agree to that,” he said.