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Johnson fends off dwindling British PM rivals in TV debate

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Brexit figurehead Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that Britain "must come out" of the EU by the new October deadline, as he defended his runaway lead in the UK leadership race against his four remaining rivals in a TV debate.

[LONDON] Brexit figurehead Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that Britain "must come out" of the EU by the new October deadline, as he defended his runaway lead in the UK leadership race against his four remaining rivals in a TV debate.

The former foreign minister kept his cool and made no evident stumbles after seeing his advantage grow in a second-round ballot held earlier on Tuesday by lawmakers from the ruling Conservatives in the lower House of Commons.

Mr Johnson, who had ducked out of a first televised debate on Sunday, cast himself as the one politician able to bring Britain successfully out of the European Union and therefore deliver the Brexit which British voters called for three years ago.

"We must come out on October 31 because otherwise I'm afraid we face a catastrophic loss of confidence in politics," said Mr Johnson in the hour-long BBC television showdown.

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"I think the British people are thoroughly fed up."

But neither he nor the other contenders raised their hands when asked by the BBC to do so if they could "guarantee" that Brexit will happen by October 31.

FRANTIC SEARCH FOR LEADER 

The surprisingly even-tempered debate did little to alter a growing sense that the race is Mr Johnson's to lose.

He picked up 126 of the 313 Conservative MPs' votes cast Tuesday while hardline former Brexit minister Dominic Raab got knocked out after falling three short of 33-vote threshold.

Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt picked up 46 votes and environment minister Michael Gove 41.

Moderate international development minister Rory Stewart continued his against-the-odds challenge by expanding his support base from last week's 19 to 37, while interior minister Sajid Javid scraped through with exactly 33.

Britain is frantically searching for a leader after Prime Minister Theresa May stepped down last month over her repeated failure to deliver Brexit on time.

Her successor will be saddled with both resolving Britain deepest political crisis in generations and setting the terms of how it deals with the rest of Europe for decades to come.

Further rounds of voting scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday will whittle the list of contenders down to just two.

The finalists will face the ruling party's 160,000 grassroots members in a vote next month to decide the winner.

'NOT CREDIBLE' 

Mr Johnson's lead is so substantial that some UK media say the others are simply fighting for a good spot in his future government.

Mr Stewart fired the most direct barbs at Mr Johnson on Tuesday by arguing that "no-deal is not a credible threat".

Both Mr Hunt and Mr Gove repeated that a further delay may be required if a Brexit deal was within reach.

"If we were nearly there, then I would take a bit longer," Mr Hunt said.

Mr Gove said that he would also allow "extra time" if a solution was in sight.

But Mr Javid said it was "fundamental" to get out by the new deadline no matter what.

"We have got to learn from our mistakes," said Mr Javid.

UK politicians are split between ardent eurosceptics who would prefer to see Britain leave without any strings attached to the bloc.

Moderate Brexit backers want some sort of deal that preserves established economic links between the ancient trading partners.

Mr Johnson has warned throughout that he is prepared to get Britain out of the European Union without an agreement - as long as it is done by the October 31 deadline.

But he has also called this tough talk a negotiating tactic designed to scare Brussels and force it to compromise on the nagging issue of status of Irish border.

EU leaders have long ruled out re-opening the binding part of the agreement they all signed with Mrs May last year.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been particularly critical of Britain's political stalemate and questioned the wisdom of extending Brexit for a third time.

Only Mr Stewart is openly trying to salvage Mrs May's pact in the hope of pushing it through Britain's splintered parliament on the fourth attempt.

AFP