Tory leadership race: Contenders clash over Brexit


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Media captionMoments you may have missed from the Tory leadership TV debate

Contenders to replace Theresa May as Conservative leader have clashed over delivering Brexit during a TV debate.

The MPs argued over whether a new deal could be renegotiated with the EU, and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

Leadership hopefuls appeared before a studio audience at a debate hosted by Channel 4 News in east London.

Boris Johnson came under fire for not taking part. He had defended his non-appearance, saying debates with many guests “can be slightly cacophonous”.

Some of the sharpest exchanges came over whether Parliament should be shut down in order to push through a no-deal Brexit by 31 October – something four of the five candidates argued against.

The UK had been due to leave the EU on 29 March, but EU leaders agreed to delay the date to October after MPs repeatedly rejected Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

International Development Secretary Rory Stewart said proroguing Parliament was a “deeply disturbing” option and Home Secretary Sajid Javid warned “you don’t deliver democracy by trashing our democracy”.

However ex-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab refused to rule it out, saying “every time one of these candidates take an option away… we weaken our chances of getting the best deal.”

Who won the debate?

Analysis by BBC political correspondent Ben Wright

No stand-out winner and a debate that won’t trouble the absent front-runner Boris Johnson.

His team thought there was nothing to be gained from pitching up for this blue-on-blue skirmish which was mostly good natured but repeatedly raised questions the candidates struggled to answer.

How can the next prime minister renegotiate a deal with the EU? How can it be done by October? How could the UK leave without a deal if MPs refuse?

At one end of the debate, Dominic Rabb was rounded on for saying he would be prepared to try and suspend parliament if it was the only way to get the UK out without a deal at the end of October.

In the opposite corner, Rory Stewart was the only one who said a renegotiation with the EU in the next four months was a fantasy promise.

At some point this week one of the five will break out and become the challenger to Boris Johnson for the ballot of Tory members.

No-deal Brexit?

The candidates also argued over whether a no-deal Brexit should be considered.

Sajid Javid said no deal was the “last thing” he wanted but added: “You do plan for no deal precisely because you want a deal.”

Dominic Raab said Britain would be able to “manage those risks” associated with leaving the EU without a deal.

However Mr Stewart said “I think a no-deal Brexit is a complete nonsense,” adding “it would be deeply damaging for our economy.”

BBC reporter Matt Cole said the warmest responses in the room seemed to be for Rory Stewart and the most testy exchanges were over Brexit.

The candidates were united in condemnation of the Labour leader with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt accusing Jeremy Corbyn of being “against aspiration”.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove argued that he was the candidate Mr Corbyn would be most scared of facing at Prime Minister’s Questions.

The UK’s next prime minister

‘Where’s Boris?’

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt attacked Mr Johnson for failing to appear at the TV debate.

“Where’s Boris,” he asked, adding “if his team won’t allow him out with five fairly friendly colleagues, how is is he going to deal with 27 European countries”.

Rory Stewart also made a pointed dig at his absent colleague, saying he hoped “one of us” – referring to the MPs who had attended the debate – becomes prime minister.

Speaking to Radio 4’s World at One earlier, Mr Johnson said he was “pretty bewildered” by claims he was dodging scrutiny and said the public had had “quite a lot of blue-on-blue action, frankly, over the last three years”.

He said the best time for a debate was on Tuesday after the second ballot.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock – who withdrew from the leadership race after the first ballot – has backed Mr Johnson “as the best candidate to unite the Conservative party”.

Writing in The Times, Mr Hancock said Mr Johnson had a “unique personality” which would bring the party together behind a Brexit deal.

He added: “I have confidence Boris will be a One Nation prime minister because that’s how he ran London – consistently – for eight years.”

Beyond Brexit

The TV debate also saw politicians being asked about their priorities apart from Brexit.

Sajid Javid chose funding education and further education colleges, saying: “We have cut back too much in that space.”

Dominic Raab said he wanted to improve state schools and offer more choices for young apprenticeships, while Michael Gove said children would be his top priority and emphasised the importance of protecting the environment for the future.

Jeremy Hunt told the audience “every Conservative has two desires: cut taxes and spend more on public services.” He also said he would focus on literacy and the social care system.

Rory Stewart said his central priority would be fixing adult social care, describing the issue as “the great unfinished revolution”.

Biggest weakness?

Asked about their weaknesses, Michael Gove said he was impatient, while Dominic Raab said he was “a restless soul” who “always wanted to make things better”.

Sajid Javid admitted to being stubborn while Rory Stewart said there were “many things he didn’t know about the world”. However, he added that “we need leaders who listen” and criticised “macho posturing”.

Jeremy Hunt suggested others might say his biggest weakness was “getting my wife’s nationality wrong” – referring to a time he got muddled about whether his wife was Chinese or Japanese.

The candidates will now go on to take part in further ballots until only two remain.

The final pair will be put to a vote of the 160,000 members of the Conservative Party from 22 June. The winner is expected to be announced about four weeks later.

On Tuesday 18 June BBC One will host a live election debate, hosted by Emily Maitlis, between the Conservative MPs who remain in the race.

The participants will face questions from viewers across the country via local TV studios.

If you would like to ask the candidates a question live on-air, use the form below. It should be addressed to all of them, not a specific politician.

If you are reading this page on the BBC News app, you will need to visit the mobile version of the BBC website to submit your question on this topic.

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