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May irritated by leadership speculation over Brexit deal

She says her focus is on getting a good deal from the EU as she slams her likeliest challenger Johnson

London

BRITISH Prime Minister Theresa May said on Sunday that she was irritated by speculation about a leadership contest as she slammed former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, seen as her most likely challenger.

The centre-right Conservative Party's leader said she was focused on securing a Brexit deal rather than her own future, in a BBC television interview marking the six-month countdown to Britain's departure from the European Union (EU).

Mrs May blasted Mr Johnson for using "completely inappropriate" language when he described her Brexit blueprint as putting Britain in a "suicide vest".

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Asked about her plans to stay in the job, she said: "I get a little bit irritated but this debate is not about my future - this debate is about the future of the people of the UK and the future of the United Kingdom. That's what I'm focused on and that's what we should all be focused on."

She added that it was important to ensure "we get that good deal from the European Union which is good for people in the UK, wherever they live in the UK".

European leaders will gather in Salzburg, Austria, on Wednesday to try to advance Brexit negotiations, which have been stalled over how to avoid a hard border with Ireland after Britain leaves the EU. The most ardent Brexiteers have called on her to drop her proposal - thrashed out with the Cabinet at her Chequers retreat in July - to secure a frictionless border by keeping Britain closely tied to EU trade rules.

"The only proposal that's been put forward that delivers on them not having a hard border and ensures that we don't carve up the United Kingdom, is the Chequers Plan," Mrs May told the BBC.

But a "chuck Chequers" movement is gathering momentum among eurosceptic Tories, and rumours continue to swirl about a formal attempt to oust Mrs May if she doesn't back down.

Mr Johnson, who quit the Cabinet over Mrs May's proposals to keep Britain close to the EU on trade, is the bookmakers' favourite to succeed her, ahead of Interior Minister Sajid Javid, eurosceptic backbench leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, Environment Minister Michael Gove, and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Although the most popular contender, Mr Johnson is not certain to win the support he would need from Tory colleagues in Parliament. Perhaps even more significantly, the plotters know that party rules dictate that if a leadership challenge fails, they would have to wait another year before trying again.

Trade Secretary Liam Fox called on Conservatives on Sunday to back Mrs May and her Brexit plans, saying the prime minister is "doing a great job in difficult circumstances" without a majority in the House of Commons.

"Supporting the prime minister now is in our national interest," Mr Fox said on Sky News. "Certainly if she wants to continue on to the next election she will have my support, and I think a British prime minister that delivers a successful Brexit will have the support of the British public."

Mr Gove also called Mrs May's plan "the right one for now", though he pointed out that "a future prime minister could always choose to alter the relationship between Britain and the European Union". "We have got to make sure that we respect that vote and take advantage of the opportunities of being outside the European Union," Mr Gove told the BBC.

Mrs May's Conservative minority government contains a sizeable bloc of hardcore Brexiteers headed by Mr Rees-Mogg and would likely need the support of the left-wing main opposition Labour Party, or a chunk of their MPs, to get her Brexit proposals through parliament.

Keir Starmer, Labour's Brexit spokesman, said any EU deal must meet Labour's key Brexit tests, which include delivering the "exact same benefits" as Britain currently has inside the single market and customs union, to win their support.

In a letter published by The Sunday Times, he said that they also could not back a loosely worded agreement: "A vague political declaration would not meet those tests. Labour will not - and cannot - vote for a blind Brexit."

Meanwhile, London Mayor Sadiq Khan added his weight to calls for a second Brexit referendum on the outcome of Britain's EU departure negotiations.

Writing in The Observer newspaper, he said Britain faces either a bad Brexit deal or no deal.

"They are both incredibly risky and I don't believe Theresa May has the mandate to gamble so flagrantly with the British economy and people's livelihoods," he wrote, referring to how the Labour politician had said voters need to be given a new referendum.

"This means a public vote on any Brexit deal obtained by the government, or a vote on a no-deal Brexit if one is not secured, alongside the option of staying in the EU," he wrote. AFP, BLOOMBERG