LONDON (AP) — The two men vying to be Britain’s next leader traded verbal blows in a televised debate Tuesday about who is more likely to break the country’s Brexit deadlock and lead the U.K. out of the European Union.
About 160,000 Conservative Party members are voting for a successor to Prime Minister Theresa May, who announced her resignation last month after failing repeatedly to get Parliament to back her divorce deal with the EU.
The two finalists, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, used their only televised debate to argue they were best placed to negotiate Britain’s twice-postponed exit, currently scheduled for Oct. 31.
Johnson, a populist former mayor of London whom polls suggest is the strong front-runner, argued Britain leaving on schedule, with or without a divorce deal, is a “do or die” issue.
“Delay does not deliver a deal. A deadline will deliver a deal,” Johnson said, adding his “energy and optimism” would help Britain “get back our mojo.”
Hunt, a long-serving but lusterless senior minister who is currently foreign secretary, said he offered experience, realism and a broader appeal than the divisive Johnson.
“I’ll be your prime minister whoever you vote for,” he said.
Unlike Johnson, Hunt said he would be prepared to delay Brexit for a short time in order to strike a deal with the EU.
That led Johnson to call Hunt “defeatist.” Hunt accused Johnson of setting a “fake deadline” and asked whether he would resign if he failed to deliver on his promise to leave by Oct 31.
Johnson did not answer.
“It’s not do or die is it?” Hunt snapped back. “It’s Boris in No. 10 (Downing St.) that matters.”
Hunt and Johnson have vowed to succeed where May failed and take Britain out of the EU — even if that means leaving without an agreement on divorce terms and future relations.
Most businesses and economists think a no-deal Brexit would plunge Britain into recession as customs checks take effect at U.K. ports and tariffs are imposed on trade between the U.K. and the EU. However, many Conservatives think embracing a no-deal Brexit may be the only way to win back voters from the upstart Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage.
Growing concern about the chance of a no-deal Brexit and signs that the British economy could be heading toward recession have weakened the pound, which fell Tuesday to $1.2440, near a two-year low.
For underdog Hunt, Tuesday’s showdown offered a chance to turn the contest around, though it may be too late. Ballot papers have already gone out, and many Conservatives have made their choice.
The two candidates also faced questions about a fierce row over leaked cables from Britain’s ambassador in Washington offering unflattering assessments of President Donald Trump’s administration.