LONDON -- The two men vying to be the next leader of the U.K. traded verbal blows in a televised debate Tuesday about who is more likely to break the country's deadlock and lead Britain 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 in May after failing repeatedly to get Parliament to back her divorce deal with the EU, popularly called Brexit.
The two finalists, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, both used their only televised debate to argue that they were best placed to negotiate Britain's twice-postponed exit, currently scheduled for Oct. 31.
Johnson, a populist former mayor of London who is widely considered the front-runner, argued that 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 that his "energy and optimism" would help Britain "get back our mojo."
Hunt, a long-serving 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 as prime minister if he failed to deliver on his promise to leave by Oct. 31.
Johnson did not answer.
"It's not do or die [for Brexit], is it?" Hunt then asked. "It's Boris in No. 10 [Downing St.] that matters."
Hunt and Johnson have both 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 as tariffs are imposed on trade between the U.K. and the EU. But 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.
The leader of the opposition Labor Party, meanwhile, shifted the party's position on Brexit on Tuesday. Jeremy Corbyn called on May's successor to call a new referendum on Britain's EU membership in which Labor would campaign to stay in the EU.
In a letter to party members, Corbyn said that the new prime minister "should have the confidence to put their deal, or no-deal, back to the people in a public vote."
"In those circumstances, I want to make it clear that [Labor] would campaign for Remain against either no-deal or a Tory deal that does not protect the economy and jobs," he said.
Labor's opponents -- and many supporters -- have accused the party of dithering over Brexit for fear of alienating voters on either side of the national divide over Europe. Until now, Corbyn, a longtime critic of the EU, had resisted calls for a second referendum, saying Labor must respect voters' 2016 decision to leave.
The left-of-center party has previously rejected May's deal but also ruled out leaving the EU without an agreement and called for an election that the party hopes will bring a Labor government to power.
Despite the new position, it's still unclear what Labor would do about Brexit if it formed a government.
Labor lawmaker Hilary Benn, who heads Parliament's Brexit Committee, said "this is a very significant moment," urging the party to be clear about its stance on Brexit.
But John Mann, a Labor legislator who backs Brexit, said the shift would cost the party support in areas of the country that voted strongly to leave the EU.
"There's no indication whatsoever that voters in my area ... have changed their mind," he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Danica Kirka and Pan Pylas of The Associated Press.
A Section on 07/10/2019
Print Headline: U.K. rivals Johnson, Hunt spar over Brexit