London, United Kingdom | AFP | UK leadership race frontrunner Boris Johnson insisted Friday he would never raise the “white flag” of surrender and plead for a further delay of Brexit if no EU deal was ready by October 31.
The former foreign minister also said he would replace the controversial “backstop” solution for keeping the Irish border open after Brexit with advanced technological checks along the new EU frontier.
He also bowed to growing political pressure and agreed to debate the other Conservative Party contenders to replace outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May on BBC television Tuesday evening.
The field of hopefuls to take on one of the most challenging political assignments in Europe narrowed to six on Friday after Health Secretary Matt Hancock withdrew.
But the odds-on favourite is Johnson — a figurehead of the 2016 referendum that triggered the laborious process of extricating Britain from the European Union after nearly 50 years.
Johnson said London could finally get what it wanted once it made abundantly clear to Brussels that it could walk away without a deal.
“We’ve got to be out by October 31,” Johnson told BBC radio in one of his most extensive public interviews since May resigned last month.
“Unless we show fortitude and determination, I don’t think we will carry conviction in Brussels about the deal we want to do.”
Yet he appeared to keep the door open — if only slightly — when pressed if he would follow the lead of his main rivals and postpone Brexit briefly if a compromise seemed imminent.
“I think it would be absolutely bizarre to signal at this stage that the UK government was willing once again to run the white flag and delay yet again,” he said.
– ‘Prepare for no-deal’ –
May was forced to step down after having to twice ask the EU to push back the withdrawal date so that the sides could avoid breaking up without a plan for what comes next.
The foot-dragging prompted frustrated Britons on both sides of the Brexit divide to punish the two big parties in European elections last month.
Johnson said his Conservatives and the main opposition Labour faced an “existential threat” from populist Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats.
But the solution he aired for resolving the Brexit crisis was one Brussels has repeatedly rejected in the past.
Johnson said the nagging issue of keeping EU member Ireland’s border free-flowing with the British province of Northern Ireland — the so-called “backstop” — should only be tackled after Brexit takes effect on October 31.
Johnson also insisted that the other 27 EU leaders would — when pressed by him — drop their past resistence and agree to technological checks conducted away from the border itself.
EU officials argue that the sides currently lack the equipment and IT support needed to handle such vast volumes of trade without physical checks.
– Bunker mentality –
Johnson collected more votes than his three nearest rivals in the first ballot held by the 313 Conservative lawmakers in the lower House of Commons on Thursday.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s second-place finish saw him secure 43 votes and the temporary lead among the more moderate challengers for the top government job.
Environment minister Michael Gove picked up 37 and remains the only other contender to have enough support to make the cut when lawmakers vote again Tuesday.
Johnson dismissed growing criticism of his past refusal to speak to reporters and said he was ready to debate everyone left standing after Tuesday’s vote.
“I think in the past when you’ve had loads of candidates it can be slightly cacophonous,” he said.
His opponents had challenged him to join them on stage Sunday during the first scheduled TV debate.
Gove said on Monday that Britain needed a leader who did “not hide in their bunker”.
The party’s 160,000 grassroots members will pick their new leader among two finalists chosen by parliamentarians in upcoming votes.
The winner will assume May’s job in the week beginning July 22.