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Johnson threatens not to pay exit bill as leadership race hots up
BORIS Johnson, the leading candidate to succeed Theresa May as Britain's prime minister, said on Sunday he would withhold an already agreed £39 billion (S$67.6 billion) Brexit payment until the European Union gives Britain better withdrawal terms.
Mr Johnson is one of 11 lawmakers vying to run the world's fifth largest economy after Mrs May resigned as leader of the governing Conservatives on Friday, having failed to unite parliament or the country behind her Brexit plan.
As the contest to replace Mrs May gathered pace on Sunday, Mr Johnson made his first major intervention, targeting the large pro-Brexit wing of his Conservative Party with a promise to take a hard line with Brussels over the terms of Britain's exit.
"I think our friends and partners need to understand that the money is going to be retained until such time as we have greater clarity about the way forward," Mr Johnson told the Sunday Times. "In getting a good deal, money is a great solvent and a great lubricant."
Main rivals - Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt, Agriculture Minister Michael Gove and Interior Minister Sajid Javid - also want to renegotiate or modify the deal, but none have threatened not to pay the exit bill Mrs May agreed with the EU in 2018.
The £39 billion represent outstanding British liabilities to the EU to be paid over a number of years.
The EU has repeatedly said it will not reopen discussion of the Brexit transition deal it reached with Mrs May last year, which British lawmakers have rejected three times, or to negotiate a future trade deal with Britain without the divorce payment.
Mr Johnson also said border arrangements with Ireland should be settled only as part of a long-term agreement, rejecting a negotiated "backstop" that would preserve the open border with Northern Ireland, a British province, but which Conservative lawmakers fear is a backdoor way of requiring Britain to continue to follow EU rules after Brexit.
Shortly after the Johnson interview was published, he won the backing of pro-Brexit lawmaker Steve Baker, an influential figure in the party's hardline eurosceptic wing.
Mr Johnson, popular with Conservative grassroots members who will be given a choice between the final two candidates, first has to win enough support among elected Conservative lawmakers - where the depth of his support is less well known - to make it onto that shortlist.
Conservative members of parliament will begin whittling the list down this week with a series of votes in parliament.
The leading candidates were out in force on Sunday setting out their thoughts on everything from Brexit and tax to drug-taking. Mr Gove, seen as one of the strongest challengers to Johnson, apologised for using cocaine 20 years ago. He set out plans to rip up rules on Value Added Tax - one of the country's most lucrative sales taxes - and replace it with a simpler system. He also confirmed he would be willing to delay Brexit by a few days or weeks if a deal with the EU was close.
Britain's original departure date was March 29 but that was shelved after Mrs May's withdrawal bill was repeatedly rejected in parliament. The current deadline is Oct. 31.
Mr Hunt did not commit to when Britain would leave the EU, but said it had to be with a deal, or else the country would face a general election in which the Conservatives could lose out to leftist Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Mr Javid set out his intent to reopen negotiations in Brussels by offering to pay hundreds of millions of pounds to cover the implementation of a new border system to smooth trade between Britain and Ireland. REUTERS