European Union leaders have warned the Tory candidates vying to become prime minister they are “wasting time” and won’t secure a renegotiation of the UK’s Brexit deal.
At a summit in Brussels, EU chiefs sent a clear message the existing withdrawal agreement was the only basis for an orderly Brexit, with both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt calling for changes to the Irish border backstop.
And European Council president Donald Tusk suggested that Mr Johnson, who led the Leave campaign in 2016, was one of those who had earned a “special place in hell” for failing to plan for how they would deliver Brexit.
Following the summit, German chancellor Angela Merkel said: “We made it very clear we wish to co-operate with the newly elected [British] prime minister.
“We will enter into talks, but we underline yet again, that the withdrawal agreement has been negotiated.”
When an extension to Article 50 was agreed in April, giving the UK until 31 October to ratify the Brexit deal, Mr Tusk pleaded with British politicians: “Do not waste this time.”
Asked if the Tory leadership contest was wasting time, Mr Tusk told journalists: “When it comes to Brexit as such, yes, I am afraid that you are wasting time.
“But I can understand why – the internal problems of political formation in London.
“This is something we should respect. I am not happy with it, but I have to respect the political reality.”
Asked if Mr Johnson was among those sharing a “special place in hell”, Mr Tusk said: “I think intellectually, it’s really easy to answer this question.
“I think you understand very well what I thought, using this metaphor.”
Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt began their campaigns to win over Tory members yesterday, addressing senior Tory councillors in Westminster ahead of the first official members’ hustings of the contest today.
Mr Hunt insisted that he could beat clear favourite Mr Johnson when Tory members cast their votes, claiming he was “someone they trust to be prime minister”.
In an early indication of the campaign lines he will use to separate himself from the former London mayor, Mr Hunt said he would be a “wise prime minister who makes sensible calls” on Brexit.
The foreign secretary insisted Brussels would be willing to listen to him. “The thing that’s not going to work in Theresa May’s deal is this Northern Irish backstop,” Mr Hunt said.
“And who do we trust to change that, someone who the EU will talk to and negotiate with?
“I’m that person.”
Meanwhile, Bank of England governor Mark Carney rejected claims by Mr Johnson that a trade rule known as Gatt 24 would allow existing tariff arrangements to apply following a no-deal Brexit.
“Gatt applies if you have an agreement, not if you have decided not to have an agreement or have been unable to come to an agreement,” Mr Carney said.