Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has said he would be prepared to delay Brexit, saying he would not commit to “a 31 October hard stop at any costs”.
The Tory leadership hopeful also could not promise that Brexit would be delivered by the end of this year.
Asked by the BBC when Britain would leave the EU if he was Prime Minister, Hunt said: “I’m not committing to a 31 October hard stop at any costs because I don’t think you can make that guarantee, and if you do go with that guarantee and go with the wrong approach you are committing us to nothing other than a hard Brexit, a no-deal Brexit.”
Hunt said he believed he would be able to renegotiate a better deal with Europe, despite its leaders making public statements that the withdrawal agreement was not up for renegotiation.
“They say that if they were approached by a British Prime Minister, someone they would be prepared to deal with, who had ideas as to how to solve the Irish border, they would be willing to renegotiate the package,” Hunt said.
“I’m not saying this is going to be easy but my point is this: if we are saying we are going to choose headlong a no-deal Brexit on 31 October or an election, those are very stark choices. Are they the best for Britian? I’m sitting here arguing that we can renegotiate better choices and offer them to the British public.”
However, Hunt said that if there was no prospect of getting a deal with Europe by 31 October, he would be prepared to leave without one.
The foreign secretary, who is currently second behind Boris Johnson in the leadership contest, said the difference between himself and the frontrunner was that he would try to get a deal.
Hunt’s insistence that the withdrawal agreement could be renegotiated came in stark contrast to the views of rival Rory Stewart, who said there was no new package to be negotiated with Europe.
The international development secretary said remaining in the single market would be a “big mistake” but that a form of a customs union would be “a good thing for the British economy”.
Asked whether he would support a customs union, Stewart replied: “If what you mean by that is we have zero tariffs zero-quota access to European markets in which we can sell British cars in, if we can get that without regulations of the City of London, without immigration coming to Britain and with leaving all the political institutions, of course, I think that would be a good thing for the British economy.”
Stewart also defended his criticisms of Johnson, which have centred on his refusal to take part in a Channel 4 leadership debate this evening.
“What I learned in Iraq and Afghanistan was that is that were too many people trying to be polite,” he said. “Nobody called out the problems, you have to point where there is a challenge. We’re at a crossroads in our country, we’re making the most serious choice about who our Prime Minister is going to be, and in Iraq and Afghanistan I was told that I was ruffling feathers, that I was being divisive – it’s because you don’t criticise, because you don’t speak uncomfortable truths that you get in a mess.”
He added: “This is the moment, in this leadership race, to say: who – and it’s a very brutal question – do you trust to be your Prime Minister. How is Boris going to deliver Brexit?”
Asked if we could trust Johnson to be Prime Minister, Stewart replied: “I don’t know what he believes – he won’t talk to me, he won’t talk to you, he won’t talk to the public. We want to know what he believes, we want him to sit at this debate tonight and tell us.”