LONDON (Reuters) – Boris Johnson, the frontrunner to replace Theresa May as Britain’s prime minister, came under pressure on Friday to face the media over his Brexit plans as another of his rivals dropped out of the leadership battle.
FILE PHOTO: Britain’s Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock is seen outside Downing Street in London, Britain, April 2, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Health minister Matt Hancock quit the battle to succeed May as Conservative Party leader, saying the party was looking for a candidate for the present not the future, leaving six contenders amongst whom Johnson is the overwhelming favourite.
He won the backing of 114 of 313 Conservative lawmakers in the first round of voting on Thursday, way ahead of foreign minister Jeremy Hunt who was second with 43 while three others were eliminated.
The issue dominating the contest is how and when Britain will leave the European Union and who is best placed to solve the crisis that has plunged the political establishment into turmoil since the 2016 referendum to leave the bloc.
May resigned as Conservative leader having failed three times to get her divorce deal with the EU through parliament. The EU has repeatedly said it will not renegotiate that deal.
Rivals turned their sights on Johnson who has pledged that Britain will leave on Oct. 31, whether or not a deal can be struck.
He argues that if Britain is prepared for a no-deal Brexit, the EU will bend to his argument to remove the so-called Northern Irish backstop to prevent a return to a hard border with Ireland if there is no agreed future trade deal.
But he has not yet agreed to take part in televised debates, the first of which takes place on Sunday, leading to accusations that the flamboyant former foreign secretary is avoiding difficult questions, in case any slip-up proves costly.
“We can only have that debate if our frontrunner in this campaign is a little bit braver in terms of getting out into the media, engaging in debates, engaging in the TV debate,” Hunt told BBC radio.
“What would Churchill say if somebody who wants to be prime minister of the United Kingdom was hiding away from the media, not taking part in these big occasions?”
The latter comment was a jibe at Johnson who wrote a biography of Britain’s World War Two leader.
With Johnson so far ahead in the first round of voting, there had been speculation in the British media that some rivals might withdraw to allow a more unified challenge to the man who led the official leave campaign in 2016.
“I ran as the candidate of the future, but the party is understandably looking for a candidate for the unique circumstances we face right now,” Hancock said as he pulled out of the race.
“I will talk to all the other candidates about how these values can be best taken forward.”
A second round of voting among lawmakers takes place on Tuesday as the candidates are whittled down to a final two before 160,000 Conservative grassroots members choose the next leader by the end of July.
Lawmaker Priti Patel, one of Johnson’s party backers, said there would be plenty of opportunities to question him.
“We will see what happens over the next few weeks,” Patel said when asked by the BBC if Johnson would join the debates.
“I think this is incredibly unfair, actually. We saw Boris’ launch a couple of days ago. He spoke very clearly about the direction of travel in terms of where he stands on Brexit, how to deliver Brexit,” she said.
May’s potential successors have all said they could find the solution to the Brexit crisis which eluded her.
Parliament has indicated it will try to stop a no-deal Brexit, which investors warn would hurt financial markets and shock the world economy. But some of those running to lead the Conservatives, including Johnson, say it may be the only way for Britain to leave the bloc without further delay.
Another challenger, aid minister Rory Stewart, said Johnson had to attend the TV debates so lawmakers could see who was his best challenger.
“He keeps saying he will deliver Brexit by Oct. 31 but how?” Stewart said. “How is he going to renegotiate with Europe? How’s he going to get it through parliament because this can’t be just a blind act of faith?”
Editing by William Schomberg