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UK's Hunt to Brussels - Punishing Britain will damage EU

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BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Foreign minister Jeremy Hunt told the European Union on Sunday that punishing Britain in Brexit talks would fuel the desire of other states to break away, in a speech aimed at uniting Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party against Brussels.

Hunt’s address to the party’s annual conference in Birmingham was immediately seen by members and media as a claim to be considered a candidate to replace May if her leadership falters over a seemingly intractable Brexit process.

Seeking to unify a party still split between those who wanted to stay in the EU and those who wanted to leave, he cast Brussels as the villain in stalled and acrimonious negotiations over a future partnership.

“At the moment you seem to think the way to keep the club together is to punish a member who leaves,” he said at the governing Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham.

“The lesson from history is clear: if you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out won’t diminish, it will grow, and we won’t be the only prisoner that will want to escape.”

Hunt, 51, replaced Boris Johnson as foreign minister in July after Johnson resigned in protest against May’s Brexit plans.

Johnson was the face of the 2016 pro-Brexit campaign and has since set out his own vision of Brexit, labeling May’s plan ‘deranged’ and seeking to sweep up the support of the majority of Conservative members who also wanted to leave the EU.

Hunt took a different approach on Sunday, making an appeal to the 48 percent of Britons who voted to remain in the EU, while adopting a bellicose tone with Brussels and against the opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

“If we are to unite the country, we must deliver not just a true Brexit for the 52 percent (of ‘Leave’ voters) - but also a generous Brexit for the 48 percent. They are patriots too,” he said . “So however fierce the debate, however high the passions, never forget that disunity and division won’t give us a better Brexit but the wrong Brexit, a Corbyn Brexit or perhaps no Brexit at all.”

Reporting by William James; Editing by Kylie MacLellan