Several hopefuls vying to replace British Prime Minister Theresa May have turned their fire on favourite Boris Johnson, questioning his pledge to leave the European Union by the end of October no matter what.
While former Mayor of London and ex-Foreign Secretary Johnson dodged the confrontation, the five other candidates went on the airwaves on Sunday at Channel 4 to present their cases to lead the governing Conservative Party.
But during the 90-minute debate over which man was best placed to deliver Brexit, Johnson was often mentioned and his relative silence has so far done little to dent his popularity.
He secured a large lead in the first round of voting by Conservative MPs and his team hopes for an increased share this week in the second.
Knowing Johnson is the man to beat, candidate after candidate questioned his ability to navigate the UK’s departure from the EU, saying his pledge to leave on October 31 was nigh on impossible and would set Britain on track for a no-deal Brexit.
“The difference between me and Boris is that I would try for a deal,” said Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is ranked as third-favourite in the leadership contest.
“I am not going to create a set of circumstances that makes it all but impossible to get a deal because I think we should be offering the country some better choices,” he told the BBC.
Almost three years since Britain voted to leave the EU, the country, parliament and both main parties are still deeply divided over how, when and even whether Brexit should happen.
Brexit has claimed two prime ministers. David Cameron resigned shortly after a 2016 referendum, and now May is making way for a successor because of her failure to get a deal she agreed with the EU through parliament.
Brexit is dominating the Conservative leadership race, with several of the candidates, albeit some of them reluctantly, saying they would lead the nation out without a deal.
Four of the five candidates said they would seek to renegotiate the draft Brexit divorce deal agreed with Brussels even though EU leaders have repeatedly ruled this out.
The fifth, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, who wants to rule out a no-deal Brexit, took issue with Johnson’s and other candidates’ arguments that the only way to get an improved deal from the EU was to prepare for leaving without an agreement and using that as leverage.
“They are not scared of it because it is not a credible threat. The European Union knows no deal cannot get through parliament,” said Stewart, a relative unknown who has shot up the bookmakers’ odds to be placed second.
“How is Boris going to deliver Brexit, how? … I don’t even know what he believes. He won’t talk to me, he won’t talk to you, he won’t talk to the public. We want to know what he believes.”
He repeatedly challenged the others to detail their own Brexit plans and accused them of “machismo”, earning rounds of applause from the studio audience for his comments.