British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in London, the UK. Picture: AFP/ DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS
British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in London, the UK. Picture: AFP/ DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS

London — British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, a contender to replace Theresa May as prime minister, says German Chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated the EU is willing to renegotiate the Brexit divorce deal.

Hunt, vying to succeed May after she resigned as Conservative Party leader on Friday, said on Sunday he spoke with Merkel at this week’s D-Day commemorations and was convinced changing May’s deal was possible.

“She said that of course with a new British prime minister we would want to look at any solutions you have,” he told Sky News.

“I’m absolutely clear that if we take the right approach to this, the Europeans would be willing to negotiate on the package.”

Hunt did not specify if he was referring to the legally binding withdrawal agreement which the EU has repeatedly insisted cannot be reopened, or to the accompanying political declaration on future relations.

Brussels has said the declaration could be revisited if Britain makes a substantive change in its positions, for example on a customs union or access to the single market.

May agreed the package with the EU last year, but British MPs rejected it  three times, forcing her to delay Brexit twice, the latest extension being to October 31.

A controversial provision in the agreement for the Irish border, known as the backstop, is the key stumbling block. It would avert the return of border checks between the British province of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if the sides do not agree on a free trade pact after an initial transition period.

Hunt claimed Merkel signalled that EU leaders may now be open to a technological solution to the thorny issue, something Brussels previously ruled out as unrealistic.

“She said to me Germany doesn’t have that border with the Republic of Ireland, you do ... so you need to come up with the solution,” he said.

“So it's going to be a solution that’s based around some technologies — what the Germans call intelligent border(s). I think that's doable.”

May stepped down as Conservative Party leader on Friday and formally triggered the succession race being contested by 11 Tory MPs, but will remain prime minister until a new leader is chosen.

The leader of the party, which won the most seats at the last general election in 2017, will almost certainly become prime minister.

Boris Johnson

The Brexit-dominated battle is expected to conclude by the end of next month. Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson is considered the clear frontrunner.

Johnson said in an interview published on Sunday he would refuse to pay a s £39bn divorce bill until the EU agrees to better withdrawal terms.

The former London mayor also signalled he would scrap the much-despised backstop and try to settle the Irish border issue once London and Brussels were negotiating their future relationship.

“Our friends and partners need to understand that the money is going to be retained until such time as we have greater clarity about the way forward,” he told The Sunday Times.

“In getting a good deal, money is a great solvent and a great lubricant,” Johnsonsaid in his first newspaper interview since launching his bid to become Britain’s next premier.

Johnson also argued that only he could defeat leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and anti-EU populist Nigel Farage, whose new Brexit Party has been poaching Tory voters disgruntled at their party’s handling of Brexit.

Several cabinet members this weekend joined a growing number of centrist Tory MPs in declaring their support for Johnson.

But home secretary Sajid Javid, another leadership candidate, has also picked up some key endorsements and this weekend won the backing of popular Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson.

Environment minister Michael Gove faced turmoil in his campaign after he admitted  using cocaine “on several occasions at social events” two decades ago. “I do have a profound sense of regret about it all and I am very, very aware of the damage that drugs do,” he told the BBC on Sunday.

The former justice minister has faced accusations of hypocrisy for having continually supported tough drug laws, while a former senior drug adviser to the government warned the admission could see him barred from entering the US under its strict anti-drugs immigration laws.