Boris Johnson. Picture: BLOOMBERG/CHRIS RATCLIFFE
Boris Johnson. Picture: BLOOMBERG/CHRIS RATCLIFFE

London  — Leading Brexit advocate Boris Johnson has promised tax cuts for higher earners if he becomes Britain’s next prime minister as the contest to replace Theresa May kicked off on Monday.

May stepped down as ruling Conservative Party leader on Friday, having failed three times to win parliament’s support for an EU divorce deal.  

Nominations to replace had to be submitted on Monday with each of the 11 declared candidates needing the backing of at least eight Conservative MPs.

Some contenders look set to fall short, and voting this week will whittle the field down further.

At campaign launches on Monday, several made their pitches. While all were keen to set out a domestic agenda, it was Brexit that dominated.

Nearly all promised that they could solve the Brexit conundrum — which eluded May in three years of EU talks — in just three months, between the new leader being chosen at the end of July and the current exit date of October 31.

“Without Brexit, there will be no Conservative government and maybe no Conservative party,” foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said at his launch. “From my conversations with European leaders, it is clear to me there is a deal to be done; they want us to come up with proposals.”

Dominic Raab, who quit as Brexit minister over May’s divorce deal, said he could get a new agreement, but promised that the UK would leave the EU on October 31, even if that meant reverting to basic World Trade Organisation trade terms.

“I’m the Brexiteer, that you can rely on,” said Raab.

At his launch, health minister Matt Hancock, who has ruled out a no-deal departure, said: “We don’t need a ‘leaver’, we don’t need a ‘remainer’, we need a leader for the future.”

The differences between the candidates reflect the Conservative division  on the issue. Three years after the UK voted by 52% to 48% to quit the EU, it remains unclear how, when or even if it will leave.

The uncertainty has hit Britain’s economy, which shrank  0.4% in April, official figures showed on Monday, a bigger drop than any economist  forecast in a Reuters poll last week.

Former foreign minister Johnson is the bookmakers’ clear favourite to succeed May. According to polls, he is the most popular with the 160,000 party members who will ultimately make the choice.

He did not launch his campaign with a high-profile appearance, but instead outlined his plans in a newspaper column and interview.

But his promise to raise the point at which workers begin paying a 40% income tax to £80,000 from £50,000 still attracted much media attention, and prompted rivals to say they would rather focus on helping lower-paid workers. The move would cost £9.6bn a year.

Johnson, who has also suggested that London could withhold an agreed £39bn Brexit payment, is one of the candidates promising to take Britain out of the EU with or without a deal on October 31.

The flamboyant former mayor of London has been accused in the past of focusing on style over substance and failing to grasp details.

“We won’t get a good deal with bluff and bluster,” said Raab, one of the most hardline Brexit advocates.

Foreign secretary  Hunt, another frontrunner, said: “A serious moment calls for a serious leader. We need tough negotiations, not empty rhetoric."

Hunt’s campaign received a significant boost when pensions secretary  Amber Rudd and defence secretary Penny Mordaunt backed him.

Environment secretary Michael Gove, also considered a frontrunner, was hoping to get his campaign back on track after admitting taking cocaine when he was a young journalist.

Gove apologised, but critics accused him of hypocrisy, noting that in a previous role as education secretary he had approved banning teachers for life if they used cocaine.

While the leadership battle unfolds, May remains prime minister. Her replacement is due to be in place by the end of July.

Reuters