UK Politics

Brexit: Where do Conservative leadership candidates stand?

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There are 6 candidates to replace Theresa May as prime minister and Conservative Party leader.

One of the biggest issues for them is where they stand on Brexit - an issue that has split the party and cost Mrs May her job.

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Image caption Michael Gove leaving Downing Street with Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss

Michael Gove

The environment secretary, and prominent member of the Leave campaign in 2016, has said he would consider a further delay to Brexit.

The UK is scheduled to leave the European Union (EU) on 31 October.

But Mr Gove says if a better deal is within reach by that date, then he would sanction a "short delay" to finalise it.

His plan would be to go back to Brussels and negotiate changes to the "backstop".

The backstop is the insurance policy, negotiated by the UK and the EU, to avoid a hard Irish border (a border with checks and infrastructure).

After Brexit, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could be in different customs and regulatory regimes, which could mean products being checked at the border.

To avoid this, the backstop would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU (until both sides reached a trade agreement that would avoid a hard border) - but this is controversial as it would prevent the UK from doing its own trade deals.

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Media captionConfused by Brexit jargon? Reality Check unpacks the basics.

Mr Gove says he would also:

  • aim for a free trade agreement (based on the deal between Canada and the EU, which took over seven years)
  • guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the UK
  • rule out a further referendum
  • if it came down to a choice of no deal or no Brexit, choose no deal

Potential obstacles: The conclusions of the EU when it decided the UK could delay leaving until the end of October clearly states: "The European Council reiterates that there can be no opening of the withdrawal agreement." The withdrawal agreement is the legally binding part of the divorce deal, agreed by Theresa May and the EU, which contains the Irish backstop plan.

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Image caption Jeremy Hunt with his wife, Lucia

Jeremy Hunt

The foreign secretary says if the only way to leave the EU was with no deal then he would do that but it is not his preferred option.

Mr Hunt says there is a prospect of doing a better deal, he is in favour of changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, and he thinks it is possible to get them made by 31 October.

He also wants changes to the Irish backstop. He says he has had "conversations with European leaders" who "understand that the backstop will not get through parliament, they may not have understood that before".

He proposes sending a new negotiating team team to Brussels, which would include representatives of the European Research Group (the group of Conservative MPs who support harder forms of Brexit) and members of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party.

Potential obstacles: When the EU granted a further Brexit delay (to 31 October), it said there could be no opening of the Withdrawal Agreement - the legally binding part of the divorce deal which contains the Irish backstop plan.

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Sajid Javid

The home secretary has said he would also focus on the Withdrawal Agreement, with changes to the backstop.

He has talked about "a new digitised" Irish border, which could be "done in a couple of years" and that would not involve any infrastructure on the border.

He says he would make a "grand gesture" to the Irish government by paying for it.

Mr Javid has also said he cannot envisage circumstances in which he would want to have another extension to the UK's exit date.

And he says the country must prepare for a no-deal Brexit.

Potential obstacles: The EU has been clear it is not prepared to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement during the extension period. It's not clear exactly what Mr Javid means by a digitised border, although he says he has had Border Force working on the question, but the EU's deputy chief Brexit negotiator, Sabine Weyand, said in March that technology could not solve the border issue "in the next few years".

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Boris Johnson

The former foreign secretary wants to remove the Irish backstop plan from the Withdrawal Agreement but he has said the UK will leave on 31 October "deal or no deal".

Mr Johnson says the "way to get a good deal is to prepare for no deal".

But he also says a no-deal exit would cause "some disruption".

Mr Johnson suggested the solution to the current deadlock would be to replace the Irish backstop with "alternative arrangements" to avoid a hard border, so as to facilitate a "managed exit" from the EU.

He has also said he would withhold the £39bn "divorce" payment the UK is due to give the EU (this was negotiated as part of Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement). Mr Johnson said the money would be retained until there was "greater clarity about the way forward".

Potential obstacles: A representative of the head of the European Council said at the end of January: "The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement, and the withdrawal agreement is not open for re-negotiation." Preparing for no deal didn't enable Theresa May to get the changes she wanted to the withdrawal agreement and it's not clear how Mr Johnson can be confident of greater success. Although, the "divorce bill" is linked to the Withdrawal Agreement, it is highly likely the EU would insist on the UK meeting its financial obligations before agreeing to any other deal. Refusal to do so would sour relations and could even end up in court.

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Dominic Raab

The former Brexit secretary says he would re-open the withdrawal agreement.

He says leaving on WTO terms "is far better than leaving with a fatally flawed deal" and he has refused to rule out proroguing Parliament (essentially shutting it down) ahead of the 31 October deadline to prevent it blocking a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Raab wants to "overhaul the backstop" and says his Brexit policy would be based on the "Malthouse compromise".

The proposal, drawn up by backbenchers from Leave and Remain wings of the Tory Party, would retain "the vast majority" of Mrs May's Brexit deal but replace the Irish backstop with "alternative arrangements" involving "advanced customs and trade measures" and checks away from the border.

Mr Raab says the UK-EU future relationship "must centre on a 'best in class' free trade agreement (such as the EU-Canada agreement), not a customs union or any other hybrid arrangement requiring close regulatory alignment".

Potential obstacles: The EU's Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said: "Alternative arrangements: technology, drones, invisible controls... none of these arrangements are operational today... you need technical infrastructure to do that. And this takes time." And - as already explained - the EU has consistently ruled out any replacement of the backstop. Leaving on WTO terms is another way of saying leaving with no deal. The government's own economic analysis says that could reduce the size of the economy by 9.3% after 15 years, compared with staying in the EU.

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Rory Stewart

The international development secretary says a no-deal Brexit would be "catastrophic" and is "undeliverable" and "unnecessary".

He is planning to focus on getting Theresa May's existing deal through Parliament as there is "no evidence" the EU will offer a different deal.

He says that he would come in with "a fresh mandate" and use his negotiating skills to try to get another 45 MPs to vote for it.

Mr Stewart says if he couldn't break the deadlock, then he would turn to the option of a "Brexit assembly" of citizens to thrash out a compromise.

Potential obstacles: Attempts to get the existing deal through Parliament have been unsuccessful so far. Citizens' assemblies may well turn out to be just as divided on Brexit issues as Parliament or the country as a whole.

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