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Rivals to replace May say Boris Johnson needs scrutiny

They want him to take part in Sunday televised debate; Mr Johnson has been stalling on whether he would join in

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Boris Johnson, who launched his campaign this week to replace Theresa May as Britain's next leader, has pledged that Britain will exit the European Union (EU) on Oct 31. Delay means defeat, said the proponent of a "no deal" Brexit.

London

BORIS Johnson, the frontrunner to replace Theresa May as Britain's next prime minister, must face more scrutiny over his Brexit plans, his closest rival said on Friday.

The rival, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, taunted him about seemingly trying to dodge participation in the first round of television debates among Conservative Party members seeking to succeed Mrs May as party leader.

Mr Johnson has pledged that Britain will exit the European Union (EU) on Oct 31, warning his divided Conservative Party that "delay means defeat". 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.

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Mrs May quit as Conservative leader this month, having failed three times to get her divorce deal struck with the EU through parliament. The EU has said it will not renegotiate the withdrawal deal.

With Mr Johnson winning the support of 114 of 313 party lawmakers in the first round of voting, there has been speculation in the British media that some rivals may withdraw to mount a more unified challenge against the man who led the official campaign in 2016 for Britain to vote to leave the bloc.

On Friday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock withdrew from the Tory contest, but did not say who he would now support. "I will look for the best way to advance the values we fought for, of free enterprise, and an open, aspirational, free society, underpinned by an optimistic belief in the value of each individual person," he said in an e-mailed statement. I will talk to all the other candidates about how these values can be best taken forward."

Mr Hancock's decision comes after he received 20 votes in the first-round ballot of Tory MPs on Thursday. Candidates need 33 votes to make it through to the second round next week.

The remaining candidates, meanwhile, have promised to take part in televised debates, the first of which is on Sunday.

The frontrunner now says he will join a TV debate with his rivals once more of them have been knocked out of the contest on Tuesday. After stalling for the past week on whether he'd participate in debates with other contenders, Mr Johnson has said he is prepared to take part.

"It is important that we have sensible grown-up debates," he told BBC radio on Friday in his first broadcast interview of the campaign so far. "I'm more than happy to do the BBC TV debate on Tuesday."

He made clear that he is unlikely to participate in the first debate on Sunday, saying debates with many candidates can be "cacophonous", and that the best time to hold a debate is after the second round of voting on Tuesday - when at least one more candidate will be eliminated.

Before his confirmation, Mr Johnson faced accusations that he was trying to avoid difficult questions. Mr Hunt, who emerged a distant second in the first round of the Tory vote, said: "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.

"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?" (That was a jibe at Mr Johnson, who wrote a biography of Britain's World War Two leader.)

A second round of voting among lawmakers that takes place Tuesday will cut down the number of candidates to a final two; the 160,000 Conservative members will choose the next leader by end-July.

Mrs May's potential successors have all said they could find the solution to the Brexit crisis which eluded her. Parliament has said 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 Mr Johnson, say it may be the only way for Britain to leave the bloc without further delay.

Another challenger, aid minister Rory Stewart, said Mr 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?" Mr Stewart said. "We need to get into the details of how it's going to happen. 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?" REUTERS, BLOOMBERG