Boris Johnson has been attacked by rivals in the Conservative party leadership contest and Eurosceptic MPs for softening his stance on Brexit, following a televised debate in which the frontrunner appeared to suggest that the UK may not leave the EU this autumn.
When quizzed on whether the UK should definitely leave the EU on October 31, Mr Johnson said the date was “eminently feasible” but did not offer any firmer commitments about leaving with or without a deal on the date.
“Boris has made a big play of saying we’ll leave deal or no deal on October 31. Yesterday, frankly, he suggested he wouldn’t be so absolute in that,” Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary, told the BBC on Wednesday. “I’m not entirely sure what he believes on this having listened to him last night.”
Mr Hunt, who came second in Tuesday’s second round of the Tory leadership election, added that the role of the prime minister is “not actually about broad-brush statements”. “We all want to leave by October 31, we want to have an orderly Brexit. That’s the easy bit. It’s about making finely balanced judgments based on the facts in front of you,” he added.
Home secretary Sajid Javid also took aim at Mr Johnson, stating during the debate that “you need to have a deadline”. Mr Javid firmly ruled out any further extensions beyond October 31 and argued that more preparations were needed for leaving without a deal.
Mr Johnson is also facing a backlash from some Eurosceptic supporters for not taking a strong enough line on Brexit. His leadership bid has been endorsed by several leading Brexiters, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker, who lead the European Research Group caucus of MPs.
In messages to a WhatsApp group run by the ERG, one Brexiter said: “Someone needs to get Boris prepped. Tonight, he continued to talk about a ‘transition period’. Perhaps he means Article 24 [of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] but it is irresponsible to be so unclear on this vital issue.”
Article 24 of GATT, incorporated in the World Trade Organization rule book, allows for no tariffs to be imposed while a trade deal agreed in principle is being negotiated. However, it would not apply in a no-deal Brexit scenario.
Another member of the group attacked the Johnson campaign for using Brexit minister James Cleverly as a surrogate after the debate. “Sending Cleverly around the studios was a mistake . . . Cleverly was all about continuing with the withdrawal agreement,” the person said.
But Mark Francois, ERG vice-chair, denied Mr Johnson had softened his stance on Brexit. “Boris is on the record on numerous occasions saying we must leave on October 31 and that this is an existential issue for the Conservative party. His line has not changed in any way and if he becomes PM, we leave at Halloween.”
Another prominent Eurosceptic said Mr Johnson’s stance was “ballsy because the British electorate are demanding it, to hold firm and challenge the EU to show that their words of friendship are translated into action”.
“His position means he thinks no-deal is not a disaster, as even [cabinet secretary] Mark Sedwill has now admitted. So being prepared and holding firm that we will walk on October means the chances of EU coming to the table and giving us changes we need much more likely,” the MP said.
Mr Johnson has taken a delicate line on Brexit, appealing to both centrist Conservative MPs by arguing that as prime minister he would focus on renegotiating Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, but also to Eurosceptics who want to see the UK leave the bloc this autumn come what may.
With the departure of Dominic Raab from the race on Tuesday, there is no other prominent Brexiter to outflank Mr Johnson with a tougher position.
Talks have also taken place between candidates Rory Stewart and Michael Gove about a potential merger. A spokesperson for the Stewart campaign said “clearly at some point people will need to combine teams. But any team that gets combined, Rory wants to lead it.”
But an insider on Mr Gove’s campaign said they would not be folding in behind Mr Stewart. “We are in it to win it and we would obviously welcome the support of any candidate that wanted to drop out and support us.”
The former Brexit secretary’s 30-odd parliamentary supporters are likely to back “who they deem to be the true Brexiter”, according to a friendof Mr Raab, pointing to further endorsements for Mr Johnson.
The third vote among MPs will take place on Wednesday afternoon, with the results due at 6pm. The contender with the lowest number of votes will be automatically knocked out. Two further rounds of voting are set to take place on Thursday.