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.”
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.”