Both candidates in the Tory leadership race have raised the chances of a no-deal Brexit by ruling out one of the few possible compromises to secure a deal with the EU.
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt said they would not accept the Irish border backstop as part of the Withdrawal Agreement even if a five-year time limit was applied.
The comments in a head-to-head debate hosted by the Sun newspaper last night dramatically narrow the already limited options for securing a compromise deal with Brussels and avoiding a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. Brussels has repeatedly said it will not accept a Brexit deal that does not include an insurance policy to maintain the status quo for trade along the Irish border.
Mr Johnson was unable to give a cost of no-deal Brexit preparations when challenged on his claim that leaving without an agreement would cost a “vanishingly inexpensive” amount.
“It depends how well we prepare,” he said to laughter from the audience.
Challenged that he had not costed it, he replied: “No, no. The Treasury will produce all sorts of spine-chilling figures, of course it will, but actually I think if we get our act together in the way that we can, we can minimise the cost of Brexit under any circumstances and we can turn it into a fantastic opportunity.”
Mr Hunt said, though, that “there are real costs”.
“I think you can minimise the costs of a no-deal Brexit but I don’t think you can say they are vanishingly small,” Mr Hunt said.
Mr Johnson challenged Mr Hunt on when he would deliver Brexit, saying any further delay would be “absurd”.
“I’m hearing that Jeremy might delay for a few days. Well, how many days? Is that three days? Is that six days?” Mr Johnson said.
“You said you would be prepared to wait until Christmas. Which Christmas is it?”
In a wide-ranging debate, Mr Johnson also refused to comment on his personal life and was unable to commit to bringing down net immigration levels.
Asked by the Sun’s political editor Tom Newton Dunn whether numbers will come down under his leadership, Mr Johnson: “I’m not going to get into some numbers game with you.
“What I think we will have is control, which is what the people voted for and it’s high time we got it.”
Mr Hunt said the way to bring down numbers is by boosting the education levels of UK citizens.
“I actually agree with Boris about taking back control,” Mr Hunt said.
“That’s what people voted for but they also voted with an expectation that overall levels of net migration would come down and I believe that people would think we were betraying the spirit of that Brexit referendum if we didn’t find a way of bringing down overall numbers.”
Mr Johnson refused to speak about his private life, including who he would live with in Downing Street if he became PM.
“I’ve had a pretty ruthless rule on not commenting on that side of things and I don’t intend, if I may, to break it after 30 years,” he said.
Mr Hunt said he would offer his predecessor as foreign secretary a senior job in his cabinet, but Mr Johnson was unable to make the same commitment despite expressing admiration for his rival.
Both men said they would appoint a woman to one of the Great Offices of State if they became prime minister.
And they both suggested Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was personally antisemitic, with Mr Hunt saying: “Unfortunately, he may be.”
Mr Johnson said: “I think by condoning antisemitism in the way he does, I am afraid he is effectively culpable of that vice.”