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Five of the remaining six candidates in the Conservative Party’s leadership election took part in a televised debate on Channel 4 on Sunday evening. Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab and Rory Stewart participated in the debate while Boris Johnson did not attend.
Asked about their approach to Brexit, four of the candidates said they would seek to achieve a re-negotiated exit from the EU while retaining the option of No Deal. Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, said it was “fundamentally pessimistic” to suggest that a negotiated Brexit deal could not be achieved, while Gove, the Environment Secretary, said it was possible to “get the European Union to change their approach.”
On the question of No Deal, Javid, the Home Secretary, said better preparations for such an outcome “would actually bring on a deal,” while Raab, the former Brexit Secretary said, “You cannot get the EU to budge unless you’re willing to walk away.” Stewart, the International Development Secretary, however, supported the current Withdrawal Agreement and said, “A No Deal Brexit is a complete nonsense. It is going to deeply damage our economy.” Meanwhile, each of the candidates except Raab ruled out the option of proroguing Parliament to facilitate a No Deal Brexit.
Earlier, Raab told the Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme that “the big mistake we made in these negotiations was in taking No Deal off the table and once we start ruling things out we only weaken our chances of getting a deal.” Meanwhile, Hunt told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show that EU leaders “want to solve” the Brexit impasse, adding, “They say that if they were approached by a British Prime Minister, someone they were willing to deal with, who had ideas as to how to solve the Northern Irish border they would be willing to renegotiate the package.” Stewart also appeared on the Marr Show and said his “Plan B” option would be to convene a citizens’ assembly and “[give] them three weeks to go through the details of it and then make recommendations.”
Meanwhile, five of the candidates are expected to take part in hustings in front of 100 political journalists at Westminster today.
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The Conservative leadership contender, Boris Johnson, told a party hustings on Saturday that his “mission” as Prime Minister would be to “get Brexit done [and] get ready for [a General] Election.” Johnson told Conservative Party activists that he had experience “of sucking away the oxygen of UKIP [United Kingdom Independence Party] and [Brexit Party leader] Nigel Farage,” adding, “they wouldn’t even stand against me the second time I stood in London. We can push them back in their box.” This comes as Johnson was endorsed by two former leadership contenders, Matt Hancock and Esther McVey.
Meanwhile, a You Gov poll for the Sunday Times showed that 47% agreed with the suggestion that Johnson can win the next General Election. The poll put the Brexit Party in the lead on 24%, Labour and the Conservatives tied in second place on 21%, and the Liberal Democrats in fourth place on 19%.
Elswehere, the former Conservative Chancellor and Father of the House of Commons, Kenneth Clarke, said that he would be prepared to vote against the Government in a No Confidence motion to prevent a No Deal Brexit, adding “if there’s no other way” to prevent such an outcome, “then you’ve got to bring that Government down.” Meanwhile, the Sunday Times reports that up to 30 Conservative Peers are prepared to resign the party Whip in the House of Lords if the Government pursues a No Deal Brexit.
This comes as Hilary Benn, the Labour MP and Chair of the Brexit Select Committee, told Sky News that a No Deal Brexit would be “completely irresponsible… because of the economic damage it would do to the country.”
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The Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar, has told RTE that he is certain that the EU will not allow the Irish backstop to be removed from the Withdrawal Agreement, adding, “To me no backstop is effectively the same as no deal because what the backstop is is…a legally operable guarantee that we will never see a hard border emerge again. If we don’t have that, that is No Deal.” Asked about the possibility of a technological solution for the border, Varadkar said, “What people are saying is give up the backstop, which we know will work legally and operationally in return for something that doesn’t yet exist but might exist in the future … I can’t do that to the border communities.”
This comes as a new Behaviour and Attitudes poll for the Sunday Times shows Varadkar’s party, Fine Gael, down five points on 23%, and five points behind the official opposition, Fianna Fáil, on 28%. Sinn Féin were down seven points on 12% and the Greens were up six points on 11%.
Meanwhile, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said this morning that while some details of the Withdrawal Agreement could be renegotiated, the main issues including the backstop, the financial settlement, and citizens’ rights, have been finalised. He added, “Independently of the name of the new [UK] Prime Minister, the deal is on the table. It is to take or to leave.”
The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) changed its forecast for the UK’s economic growth in 2020 to 1% from its previous estimate of 1.3%, while its forecast for the UK’s GDP in 2021 has been downgraded from 1.4% to 1.2%. The lobby group also predicted business investment in the UK to fall by 1.3% in 2019, and to increase by 0.4% in 2020. The BCC’s Director General, Adam Marshall, said UK firms “are putting resources into contingency plans, such as stockpiling, rather than investing in ventures that would positively contribute to long-term economic growth,” adding, “This is simply not sustainable.”