Hunt: Tory leadership contest must wait until Brexit deal agreed | Politics


Jeremy Hunt has insisted the contest to succeed Theresa May as Conservative party leader must wait until after the Brexit withdrawal agreement has been voted through by parliament.

Hunt, a Brexit convert and Tory leadership hopeful, said passing the EU withdrawal bill remained a priority for the government, as reports suggested leading cabinet members were happy for May to stay in office until the autumn if she failed to get her deal through parliament.

Tory leadership hopefuls fear any contest before May’s deal is approved by MPs would allow Brexiters, such as Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, to gain support by pledging to reopen the agreement with Brussels, according to reports on Monday.

The prime minister is facing renewed calls from Tory Brexit supporters to step down as talks with Labour over the EU withdrawal bill continue during the Easter recess.

Addressing speculation over a leadership challenge from Johnson, his predecessor as foreign secretary, Hunt said: “There is one very big difference between me and Boris, which is that I am foreign secretary and I have a very big job to do to try and get this deal over the line. That has to be my focus.

“I think what matters is that we have a cabinet that believes in Brexit, and we believe in Brexit, whichever way we voted in the referendum, because we’re all democrats and we think that there are great opportunities for this country, whichever choice it makes,” Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme from Japan, where he met the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

Hunt said a continuation of the Brexit paralysis would be damaging to Britain’s international standing, adding that Japan was worried the UK would become “submerged in the mire of Brexit indecision”.

He said that although a no-deal Brexit appeared less likely, he hoped a recently signed EU-Japan trade deal would roll over to the UK if it left without a deal.

He added: “It’s very important not to lose perspective that, get to the other side of this Brexit process and the world is very, very optimistic about Britain’s future. They think we’re a great country. We’ve done more to shape the modern world than probably any other country except America.”

A Conservative leadership contest has two stages.

In the first part, MPs vote for their choice of leader from all of the candidates who have been nominated. In each round of voting, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated from the contest. MPs then vote again, until there are only two challengers remaining. This usually takes place over several days.

At that point the second stage is a postal ballot of Conservative party members to chose which of the two candidates they wish to lead the party.

In 2016 the party members did not get to vote. At the point that the contest had been narrowed down to a choice between Andrea Leadsom or Theresa May, Leadsom stood aside. This left Theresa May to become leader and prime minister unopposed.

Under the existing rules, since she won a vote of no confidence in December 2018, Theresa May’s leadership cannot be directly challenged. However, she would trigger a leadership contest by resigning, as she has now promised to do.

Regarding the leadership contest, Hunt said: “There will be a time for all those discussions about whether this shade of person or that shade of person is the right person to take over from the prime minister. But the time for that is when she has announced she’s going and there’s a formal leadership contest.”

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