LONDON—The two contenders to succeed Theresa May as U.K. prime minister said they want to ditch controversial proposals for managing the Irish border after Brexit, setting up a likely clash with the European Union that raises the risk of an abrupt and messy split with the bloc.
During a debate Monday hosted by the Sun newspaper, front-runner Boris Johnson and rival Jeremy Hunt said they weren’t willing to accept the so-called backstop provisions of a Brexit withdrawal package negotiated between Mrs. May and the EU. The EU has said the Irish backstop is an essential component of any exit deal.
The debate comes a week before polling closes in the leadership contest. Around 160,000 members of the ruling Conservative Party are eligible to vote in the ballot to select the new party leader. The winner, who will succeed Mrs. May as prime minister, is due to be announced July 23. Mr. Johnson, a former London mayor and foreign secretary and one of the U.K.’s most recognizable politicians, is the clear favorite, according to opinion polls.
The backstop plan was developed as a way to prevent the need for border infrastructure between Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, once the U.K. leaves.
But it proved deeply unpopular with Mrs. May’s Northern Irish parliamentary allies and some sections of the ruling Conservative Party, who objected that the proposal risked weakening the bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
Hostility to the backstop was a critical factor in the successive defeats of her Brexit plan that triggered Mrs. May’s political downfall.
“The backstop as it is, is dead,” said Mr. Hunt during Monday’s debate. Mr. Johnson agreed, saying he isn’t attracted to various proposals to tweak the backstop, such as setting a time limit for it to expire.
The stance puts the two prime ministerial candidates squarely at odds with the EU, which insists the backstop is necessary to preserve the bloc’s single zone of regulation, common import regime and political stability in Northern Ireland, while avoiding the need for checks on goods crossing the frontier between the Republic of Ireland and the U.K.
The proposal calls for Northern Ireland to remain closely tied to EU rules and regulations after Brexit and for the U.K. to stay inside the EU’s customs area until new trading arrangements to supersede the backstop are completed.
A confrontation between London and Brussels over the terms of Britain’s withdrawal now seems unavoidable. Mr. Johnson reiterated Monday that he is prepared to leave the EU without any deal to smooth withdrawal, an outcome that economists—and the government’s own analysis—warn could cause severe economic disruption. Having been postponed twice because the U.K. Parliament rejected Mrs. May’s deal, Brexit is now scheduled for Oct. 31.
“People are totally fed up,” of Brexit, Mr. Johnson said.
The two men were also quizzed about topics ranging from a popular reality TV show in the U.K. to President Trump’s recent attacks on Democratic lawmakers. Mr. Trump drew bipartisan condemnation for saying a group of lawmakers should “go back” to their unspecified countries.
“If you are the leader of a great multiracial, multicultural society, you simply cannot use that kind of language,” said Mr. Johnson, though both he and Mr. Hunt stopped short of labeling Mr. Trump’s language as racist when asked.
Write to Jason Douglas at [email protected]
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