Jeremy Hunt has pledged to push for a no-deal Brexit if required should he become prime minister, as pressure grew on Conservative party grandees to find ways to trim a bloated field of 13 candidates so as to speed up the race to succeed Theresa May.
The communities secretary, James Brokenshire, used a speech on Monday morning to announce he was not standing as leader, and to urge colleagues with little chance of success to consider pulling out.
“We simply do not have the luxury of weeks of navel gazing or days and days of whittling candidates down to the final two and talking to ourselves,” Brokenshire said.
The 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, which will run the contest, is meeting on Tuesday amid calls to change party rules to reduce the scale of the field, which expanded to 13 after the former universities minister Sam Gyimah announced his candidacy.
The senior backbencher Ken Clarke said on Monday the committee “perhaps should have tightened up the rules before we started”. Clarke told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s all a shambles, and it’s in danger of becoming a rather tragic farce, unless some order is brought into it.”
Speaking later on Today, Hunt was asked whether he could back a no-deal departure. As a former remainer, the foreign secretary faces pressure to appeal to more Eurosceptic Tory MPs. The list of candidates will be whittled down by MPs to a final pair, to be decided on by party members.
Hunt said: “My position on this hasn’t changed at all. I’ve always said that in the end, if the only way to leave the European Union, to deliver on the result of the referendum, was to leave without a deal, then I would do that.
“But I would do so very much as a last resort, with a heavy heart, because of the risks to businesses and the risks to the union.”
Asked if that meant potentially seeking to leave without a deal on 31 October, the latest Brexit deadline, Hunt said: “I would be prepared to do it in extremis. But I wouldn’t do it if there was a prospect of a better deal. And I think there is a prospect of a better deal, and I think it’s possible to get one before 31 October, although I don’t pretend it’s going to be easy.”
Hunt is among ministers greeting Donald Trump during his state visit to the UK. On Sunday, the US president’s ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, said the US would want access to the NHS as part of any post-Brexit trade deal.
Hunt said he would not accept this. He said: “I can’t conceive of any future prime minister of any party ever agreeing that we would allow NHS procurement to be part of trade talks. The NHS, as a publicly run, publicly owned institution is part of our DNA.”
He added: “That’s not to say that pharmaceutical products, drugs, those kind of things which are freely traded between countries couldn’t be discussed. But the ownership of the NHS and NHS services, I can’t imagine that ever being part of trade discussions.”
In his speech, primarily about housing, Brokenshire gave words of advice to leadership candidates “who have put themselves forward for what has been described as the Grand National of political contests”.
He said: “Please think carefully. If you already know it’s going to be a bit of a struggle to get over the first fence, let alone Becher’s Brook, ahead, then maybe you should pull up. There is no embarrassment in that.
“It doesn’t reflect on your talent or ability to influence the direction of our party now and in the future. It’s just the overriding need to get our new leader in place as quickly as possible.”
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