Hunt believes he can unite warring Conservatives over Brexit

LONDON (Reuters) - British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, one of the two contenders to replace Prime Minister Theresa May next month, said on Tuesday he believed a Brexit deal could be done with the EU that would unite all wings of the Conservative party.

Conservative Party leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt waves as he leaves his home in London, Britain, June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville

“I think there is a deal that can unite all wings of the Conservative party and our friends in the DUP,” he told the BBC, referring to the small Northern Irish party that props up May’s government.

“But it’s got to be different to Theresa May’s deal,” he added. “We can’t put forward a deal to Brussels unless they absolutely know that it could get through the British parliament.”

Hunt said the key was to put together a negotiating team for Brexit that will demonstrate to the EU that any deal can pass through parliament after May’s three failures to do so.

“When I talk to European leaders this is do-able,” he said. “One of the reasons that they stopped talking to us before was because they didn’t think that the British government would deliver the British parliament. That’s what we need to change.”

Along with the DUP, he would have Conservative hardline Leavers along with Scottish and Welsh Conservatives in his negotiating team.

Hunt said the EU had to trust whoever Britain sent to Brussels to renegotiate the withdrawal deal May hammered out last November and which EU leaders have said they will not change.

The substance of his proposals to change the Northern Irish “backstop” to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland would involve technology and not differ greatly from those of his rival Boris Johnson, he added.

The key was to find a person to present them in Brussels.

“It has to be someone who isn’t going to blink, who’s prepared to walk away if we don’t get what we needed - I’m prepared to do absolutely that,” he added.

“I don’t want us to lose hope. There is a deal to be done. You’ve just got to make sure that we send the right person to get it.”

Earlier on Tuesday, front-runner Johnson challenged Hunt to commit to leaving the European Union on Oct. 31, deal or no deal. Johnson said for his part he had been clear he would leave on that date regardless.

Hunt told the BBC that he thought the cut-off date of Oct 31 “come hell or high water” was a fake deadline.

“I think we’ll know very soon, well before 31st October, if there is a deal to be done along the basis I’ve said,” he added.

“And I’m very clear that if we haven’t got the prospect of a deal that can (get) through parliament by that date, then (leaving without a deal) is the option I’ll choose.”

Reporting by Stephen Addison; editing by Paul Sandle