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Britain's Hunt says pursuing no-deal Brexit would be 'political suicide'
[LONDON] Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it would be "political suicide" for Britain to pursue a no-deal Brexit, becoming the most senior figure vying to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May to rule out doing so and drawing a battle line with rivals.
Mr Hunt's remarks put him at odds with many other candidates including the frontrunner, Mr Hunt's predecessor as foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who has said Britain should quit the European Union with or without a deal by the end of October.
Mrs May has announced plans to step down after repeatedly failing to secure parliament's approval for her deal to leave the EU, setting up a contest in the ruling Conservative party to succeed her in the coming weeks.
That contest could determine how or even whether Britain leaves the EU, or whether it would face a new national election with its major political parties divided and shaken by Brexit.
Pitching himself in contrast to Mr Johnson and others who insist leaving the EU without a deal must remain on the table, Mr Hunt said any such move would be blocked by lawmakers and trigger a national election.
"Trying to deliver no deal through a general election is not a solution; it is political suicide," Mr Hunt wrote in Tuesday's Daily Telegraph. "A different deal is, therefore, the only solution – and what I will pursue if I am leader."
Mr Hunt, who voted in the 2016 referendum to stay in the European Union, said he would try for a new agreement that would take Britain out of the EU customs union while "respecting legitimate concerns" around the Irish border.
The European Union says the Withdrawal Agreement it reached with Mrs May is final and cannot be renegotiated. Many Brexit supporters oppose it because of a "backstop" that requires Britain to adopt some EU rules indefinitely unless a future arrangement is found to keep open the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Trade minister Liam Fox, who is not running for the premiership, said while leaving with a deal was preferable, the leadership candidates were agreed that leaving the EU without a deal was better not leaving.
"If the EU doesn't want to negotiate any changes - which I think would be unfortunate and I think would be quite surprising - then I think that of course does increase the chance of a no-deal exit," Mr Fox said during a trade visit to Egypt.
Rivals for the top job were quick to reject Mr Hunt's views.
"Political suicide actually lies in not having a clean break from the EU and not leaving on the 31st October," Esther McVey, a Brexit hardliner and former minister who is standing for the leadership, said in a tweet.
Under the party's rules for picking a new leader, Conservative lawmakers will select a shortlist of candidates and put them to the party's members for a vote. So far 10 candidates have said they are running.
The party is deeply split over Brexit, which Britain voted for by 52 per cent to 48 per cent in the referendum nearly three years ago.
Many Conservative lawmakers oppose a no-deal exit, which businesses say would be catastrophic, while party activists are widely seen as more willing to support leaving with no agreement.
The Conservative Party had a disastrous showing in European elections at the weekend, losing most of its support to a new Brexit Party, which topped the poll while calling for a swift no-deal exit from the EU.
Other parties that want to halt Brexit altogether also surged in the vote, leaving little space in the middle for Britain's two main traditional parties, the Conservatives and Labour, both of which had campaigned in favour of a compromise.
Labour has since edged closer to a position that could make it possible to call off Brexit, saying a public vote - either a new national election or second referendum - is the way to reunite the country. Several of its senior figures have called on its leadership to go further and openly call for a new referendum in which the party would campaign to stay in the EU.
Under laws now in effect, Britain will automatically leave the EU on Oct 31 without an agreement unless parliament approves one first, the EU grants an extension, or the government revokes its decision to leave.
"No deal has remained the legal default so therefore the government has continued to responsibly prepare for it," a spokesman for Mrs May told reporters.