Britain's environment secretary Michael Gove. Picture: PAUL ELLIS / AFP
Britain's environment secretary Michael Gove. Picture: PAUL ELLIS / AFP

London — The prospect of a no-deal Brexit was fast becoming the central battle of the race to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May on Sunday, as environment minister Michael Gove became the latest candidate to declare.

May said on Friday she is quitting over her failure to deliver Brexit, potentially opening the way for a new leader who could seek a more divisive split with the EU and lead to confrontation with the bloc or a possible parliamentary election.

Setting out their pitch to the Conservative Party’s largely pro-Brexit membership who will decide the outcome of the contest, four of the leadership hopefuls have said Britain must leave the EU on October 31 even if this means a no-deal Brexit.

“I will fight for a fairer deal in Brussels … if not I will be clear we will leave on WTO [World Trade Organisation] terms in October,” former Brexit minister Dominic Raab, whom bookmakers rank as the second favourite to win, told BBC TV.

“If you’re not willing to walk away from a negotiation, it doesn’t focus the mind of the other side … I will not ask for an extension.”

Fellow contenders Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom made similar comments on Sunday, while former foreign minister Boris Johnson, the favourite to replace May, said on Friday: “We will leave the EU on October 31, deal or no deal.”

Gove, a leading campaigner for Brexit during the 2016 referendum campaign and a candidate in the Conservative leadership contest that May ultimately won, told reporters on Sunday that he plans to run again.

“I am ready to unite the Conservative and Unionist Party, ready to deliver Brexit and ready to lead this great country,” he said, without giving any detail on his plans for Brexit.

The EU has said it will not reopen negotiations on the withdrawal agreement, which has been rejected by parliament three times, while British legislators have also repeatedly voted against the prospect of a no-deal exit.

Highlighting the deep splits within the governing party over the way forward on Brexit, several senior Conservatives, including leadership candidate Rory Stewart, warned on Sunday against pursuing the policy of leaving without a deal.

Finance minister Philip Hammond said parliament would be “vehemently opposed” to a no-deal strategy and a prime minister who ignored parliament “cannot expect to survive very long”.

“I will urge all of my colleagues who are standing in this contest to embrace the concept of compromise … going to parliament with a hardline absolutist view and daring parliament to accept it is quite a dangerous strategy,” he told BBC TV.

Hammond said he cannot support a no-deal strategy but declined to say what he would do if there was a vote of confidence in a government that adopted that policy.

“In 22 years in parliament I have never voted against the Conservatives … and I don’t want to have to start now contemplating such a course of action,” he said.

The opposition Labour Party said it is seeking to work with other parties to try blocking May’s successor from taking Britain out of the EU without a deal.

“There is real threat now of an extremist Brexiteer becoming the leader of the Conservative Party and taking us over the cliff edge of a no deal,” Labour’s finance spokesperson, John McDonnell, told Sky News.

“We have got to move to block a no deal,” McDonnell said.

The deadlock over Brexit is expected to have hit both main parties when the results of the European Parliament elections are declared from 9pm GMT (11pm, SA time) on Sunday, with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which backs a no-deal exit, predicted to come out on top.

Reuters