Jeremy Hunt has said he will, if he becomes UK prime minister, decide at the end of September whether to pursue a no-deal Brexit if renegotiations with the EU fail to amend the backstop insurance policy that would protect the frictionless border in Ireland.
The foreign secretary, the outsider in the race to replace Theresa May as Conservative party leader, outlined a 10-point plan on Monday to mitigate the effects of leaving the EU without a deal. Although Mr Hunt has said he is willing to let the UK’s departure date slide, he would put his new Brexit plan to a vote in the Commons when parliament returns at the beginning of September and allow for three weeks of negotiations.
“As prime minister I will make a judgment on September 30 as to whether there is a realistic chance of a new deal being agreed that can pass the House of Commons,” he said in a speech.
“If my judgment . . . is that there is a deal to be done I will seek to conclude the negotiations and pass a new meaningful vote and any necessary legislation in the House of Commons before the end of October. If my judgment is that there is no deal to be done, I will immediately cease all discussions with the European Union and focus the whole country’s attention on no-deal preparations.”
Mr Hunt, who supported Remain in the 2016 referendum, has previously warned that exiting without a deal would be “deeply damaging” and “a mistake we would regret for generations”. He also wrote in May that such an exit would be “political suicide” for the Conservative party.
But in an apparent effort to win support from the predominantly Eurosceptic 160,000 members of the Tory party who will decide whether he or Boris Johnson enters Downing Street, he warned MPs they must not block a no-deal exit. “From the start of my premiership, I will work on the basis we are leaving on October 31 without a deal unless the commission changes its position.”
Mr Hunt warned that the Brexit uncertainty was “bad for business, bad for politics and bad for our country”.
Under his plan, Mr Hunt said he would seek to immediately engage with the 27 other EU leaders and the European Commission after taking office at the end of July and throughout August, although this is traditionally a period when Brussels effectively closes down, with key officials on holiday.
Under a Hunt government, a new Brexit negotiating team would be established including members of the Eurosceptic European Research Group and centrist One Nation caucuses of Tory MPs, the Democratic Unionist party, plus Scottish and Welsh Conservatives. It would be supported by Crawford Falconer, chief trade negotiation adviser at the Department for International Trade.
If Mr Hunt wins, he pledged to immediately ramp up no-deal preparations and cancel all civil service leave in August “unless I receive a signed letter from the relevant permanent secretary saying that preparations in his or her department are on time and on track”.
The plan also included forming a “no-deal cabinet task force” to ensure Whitehall’s preparations for leaving without a deal were on track, as well as planning to mitigate tariff changes and ensuring critical infrastructure was ready. Mr Hunt similarly pledged a new committee run by the Department for Transport to ensure the continued flow of goods in the event of a no-deal outcome.
A Hunt government would present a new Budget for a no-deal Brexit, which would include his policies of cutting corporation tax to 12.5 per cent, but the government’s “existing approach to tariffs” would not be altered. The “alternative arrangements” proposals for the Irish border would be financed by central government.
Several of Mr Hunt’s prominent supporters present at the speech, including digital minister Margot James and foreign minister Alan Duncan, have publicly expressed their dismay about leaving without a deal.
According to the latest survey from the grassroots website ConservativeHome, 30 per cent of the party’s membership wants Mr Hunt to be their leader compared with 66 per cent for Mr Johnson. The bookmaker Ladbrokes offers odds of 5/1 on Mr Hunt winning while Mr Johnson is 1/8.