Northern Ireland

Tory leadership: Backstop 'has to change or go', says Hunt

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt Image copyright Reuters/PA

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has told a Conservative Party leadership hustings that as Brexit approaches, the Northern Irish backstop "has to change or has to go".

He and Boris Johnson made their pitch to be the next PM to Conservative Party members in Northern Ireland.

The two candidates for the Tory leadership have been taking part in a series of party events across the UK.

The current EU withdrawal agreement was "a dead letter", said Mr Johnson.

He said the backstop presented the UK with the "unacceptable choice" between "abandoning the ability to govern ourselves" or to "give up control of the government of Northern Ireland".

The backstop - the most controversial part of the deal Theresa May negotiated with the EU - is a position of last resort to prevent any new checks or controls on the Irish border after Brexit.

The UK and EU would prefer to maintain the border status quo through a comprehensive trade deal.

Mr Johnson met with DUP leader Arlene Foster at Stormont after the hustings.

He reaffirmed his promise of there being no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Mrs Foster said they had a "useful discussion about restoring devolution and delivering on the EU referendum result".

'Tories got talent' comes to Belfast

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It was described as the Northern Ireland version of "Tories got talent" by host, broadcaster Iain Dale.

But Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson stuck to their scripts on Brexit and the backstop - which seemed to go down well with the Northern Ireland Conservatives in the room.

However, they diverged on restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr Hunt said he would be "personally" involved, while Mr Johnson told the parties just to "get on with it".

The 500 NI Conservative members will all get their say on who becomes the next PM - but it's the DUP vote that the two men are really courting.

They both agreed that winning over their unionist allies is vital for a Tory majority in Parliament.

That's something the new prime minister will have to address quickly, by renewing the £1bn confidence and supply pact when he enters No 10 later this month.

The Conservative Party's 160,000 members will begin voting next week and Mrs May's successor is expected to be announced on 23 July.

Backstop

Mr Hunt was first to take to the stage at the event.

"We are never going to have a deal to leave the EU with the backstop," he said.

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Media captionJeremy Hunt is in favour of a "technology-led solution" to the border issue

Mr Hunt has said he would decide by the end of September whether there was a "realistic chance" of reaching a new Brexit deal with the EU.

He said he would deliver a provisional "no-deal Brexit budget" in early September and then give the EU three weeks.

"The fundamental issue with the backstop is not the principle that we shouldn't have border infrastructure on the island of Ireland - that's accepted by all sides," he said.

"The principle is the backstop which traps us into following EU customs tariffs until the EU gives us permission to leave the customs union... we have to find a different solution."

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionWould you notice if you crossed the Irish border?

He said he believed the answer was a technology-led solution, as modelled in Germany.

He told Sky News earlier that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was willing to look at any new proposals put forward by the next prime minister.

For his part, Mr Johnson said the backstop presented the UK with an unacceptable choice and that "the UK as a whole should come out of the EU".

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Media captionBoris Johnson says there are "useful bits" in Theresa May's Brexit deal, but a lot must change

Mr Johnson has vowed to leave the EU "come what may" by 31 October.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, he said it was important to have a "hard deadline" for leaving, adding that previous no-deal preparations had "sagged back down" after exit dates were not met.

Abortion and same-sex marriage

Mr Hunt said his campaign was based on trying to fire up the economy, increasing defence spending, abolishing illiteracy and supporting young people.

Were he from Northern Ireland, he would want the law changed on both abortion and same-sex marriage, he said, but added that both matters were issues for a devolved government.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Compare the candidates' policies

Select a topic and a candidate to find out more

BREXIT

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary

- Wants to leave with a deal, but says he would back a no-deal Brexit with "a heavy heart" if necessary. - Will create a new negotiating team to produce an "alternative exit deal" to Theresa May’s plan, and engage with EU leaders over August. - Will present a provisional no-deal Brexit budget in early September and decide by the end of the month if there is a "realistic chance" of a new deal. - If not, will abandon talks and focus on no deal preparations. - Pledges to cover the cost of tariffs imposed on the exports of the farming and fishing industries in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

Boris Johnson
Backbencher

- Vows to leave the EU by the 31 October deadline "come what may", but claims the chance of a no-deal Brexit is a "million to one". - Wants to negotiate a new deal, which will include replacing the Irish backstop with alternative arrangements. - Will not hand over the £39bn divorce settlement with the EU until the UK gets a new deal. - If a new deal is not agreed, will ask the EU for a "standstill period" to negotiate a free trade deal. - Argues a provision under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known as GATT 24, could be used for the UK to avoid tariffs for the next 10 years, but admits it would need EU sign off. - Promises to support the rural community in a no-deal Brexit scenario with "price support" and "efficiency payments".

IMMIGRATION

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary

- Calls for flexibility on immigration, saying skilled workers should be prioritised. - Wants to review policy of stopping migrants with less than £30,000 coming to the UK to work. - Pledges to scrap the target to reduce net migration to below 100,000.

Boris Johnson
Backbencher

- Wants a new Australian-style points-based system, considering factors such as whether an immigrant has a firm job offer and their ability to speak English. - Will get Migration Advisory Committee to examine the plan. - Wants to block the ability for immigrants to claim benefits immediately after the arrive in the UK. - Opposes the net migration target of under 100,000 a year.

TAX

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary

- As an entrepreneur, he wants to turn Britain into "the next Silicon Valley... a hub of innovation". - Wants to cut corporation tax to 12.5%. - Wants to raise the point at which workers start paying National Insurance to at least £12,000 a year. - Pledges to scrap business rates for 90% of high street shops. - Will increase the tax-free annual investment allowance from £1m to £5m.

Boris Johnson
Backbencher

- Pledges to raise the tax threshold for the higher rate to £80,000 (rather than the current £50,000). - Wants to raise the point at which workers start paying income tax. - Will review “unhealthy food taxes” such as sugar tax on soft drinks.

SPENDING

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary

- Wants to increase defence spending by £15bn over the next five years. - Promises to keep free TV licenses for the over-75s. - Wants to build 1.5 million homes and create a “right to own” scheme for young people. - Backs both HS2 and a third runway at Heathrow.

Boris Johnson
Backbencher

- Pledges more money for public sector workers and wants to increase the National Living Wage. - Will “find the money” to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers by 2022. - Promises to maintain spending 0.7% of GDP on Foreign Aid. - Wants to review the HS2 train project. - Pledges full fibre broadband in every home by 2025.

HEALTH AND SOCIAL CARE

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary

- Promises more funding for social care. - Wants to introduce an opt out insurance system to fund future care, similar to the way pensions work. - Wants to target manufacturers of unhealthy foods to make them cut the sugar content. - Mental health support to be offered in every school and a crackdown on social media companies that fail to regulate their content.

Boris Johnson
Backbencher

- Rules out a pay-for-access NHS, saying it would remain "free to everybody at the point of use" under his leadership. - Has previously said money spent on the EU could be put into the NHS. - Plans to give public sector workers a "fair" pay rise, according to supporter Health Secretary Matt Hancock. - Says more should be spent on social care, according to a cross-party "national consensus".

EDUCATION

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary

- Pledges to write off tuition fees for young entrepreneurs who start a new business and employ more than 10 people for five years. - Wants to reduce interest rates on student debt repayments. - Long-term plan to provide more funding for the teaching profession. - Wants to abolish illiteracy.

Boris Johnson
Backbencher

- Wants to raise per-pupil spending in primary and secondary schools, with a minimum of £5,000 for each student in the latter. - Wants to look at lowering the interest rate on student debts.

Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Northern Ireland is also the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage is illegal.

Mr Johnson also said the NI abortion issue should be debated at Stormont.

"I don't think that the UK should be imposing something that should be decided here."

During a vote in November 2015, Northern Ireland assembly members supported same-sex marriage by a slim majority of 53 votes to 52.

But the devolved government has been in limbo since 2017 when a power-sharing agreement between rivals Sinn Féin and the DUP broke down.

Both would-be prime ministers pledged to put renewed efforts to get Stormont up and running.

"It is totally unacceptable that politicians that are paid to run the NHS and schools, and promote inward investment are not turning up to work and doing their job," said Mr Hunt.

Mr Johnson said if he was leader, he "would do whatever I can personally to energise" power-sharing talks which are currently stalled.

"Everyone needs to recognise that it is the citizens and voters of Northern Ireland that are losing out."

Pact

Following the hustings event, Mr Johnson tweeted that it was a "pleasure to meet" DUP leader Arlene Foster "to discuss restoring and protecting the governance of Northern Ireland".

In 2017, the Conservative Party entered into a confidence-and-supply pact with the DUP.

The Conservatives needed the votes of the DUP's 10 MPs in order to have a working Commons majority after the 2017 Westminster election, but had to agree to an extra £1bn in spending for Northern Ireland.

At the hustings event, Mr Johnson was asked about his attendance at a DUP conference last year.

Mr Hunt said he would "infinitely prefer if we had Conservative MPs in Northern Ireland so we didn't have to rely on other parties for that majority but to govern is to accept the world as it is".

Decision made?

The candidates are set to face each other in an ITV debate on 9 July and at an event hosted by the Sun newspaper and talkRADIO on 15 July.

Mr Hunt tweeted on Tuesday that he had been invited to a live BBC TV debate against Mr Johnson on 16 July.

He argued that about 90% of Conservative members would have already voted in the leadership race by then.

Meanwhile, former party leader William Hague, who served as leader of the opposition between 1997 and 2001, wrote in the Daily Telegraph that both candidates had "great merits" but added that he believed Mr Hunt would make the better prime minister.

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