World

British PM candidates take aim at Johnson

By AAP Newswire

A host of candidates to replace Theresa May as British prime minister have launched their campaigns, promising to solve the turmoil of Brexit while taking shots at frontrunner Boris Johnson.

May stepped down as leader of the ruling Conservative Party on Friday, having failed three times to win parliament's support for an EU divorce deal that was supposed to steer the country smoothly out of the bloc.

Nominations to replace her had to be submitted on Monday, and the party's 1922 Committee, which is running the contest, said 10 candidates had achieved the required support of at least eight of the Conservatives' 300-plus elected lawmakers.

An 11th Sam Gyimah withdrew shortly before the announcement saying he had not been able to build sufficient support. He was the only one to support holding a second Brexit referendum.

Conservative lawmakers will hold their first round of voting on Thursday to begin narrowing the field.

The candidates' campaign launches on Monday all set out domestic agendas, but it was Brexit that dominated, with overt and thinly-veiled digs at former foreign minister Johnson.

"If I get through, which I am sure I will actually, to the final two against Mr Johnson, this is what I will say to him: 'Mr Johnson, whatever you do, don't pull out'," said environment minister Michael Gove, who scuppered Johnson's 2016 leadership bid by pulling his support at the last moment to run himself.

"I know you have before, and I know you may not believe in your heart that you can do it, but the Conservative Party membership deserve a choice'."

Nearly all the hopefuls promised they could solve the Brexit conundrum - which eluded May in three years of EU talks - in just three months, between the new leader being chosen at the end of July and the current exit date of October 31.

"From my conversations with European leaders, it is clear to me there is a deal to be done; they want us to come up with proposals," current foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said.

If the issue was not sorted out, he said, the party would be annihilated in an election and socialist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would take power.

Dominic Raab, who quit as Brexit minister over May's divorce deal, said he too could secure a new agreement.

However he promised that the UK would leave the EU on October 31, even if that meant reverting to basic World Trade Organisation trade terms.

"I'm the Brexiteer that you can rely on," he said.

Others, including Johnson, have made the same promise to leave on time even if it means giving up on a deal with the EU that would smooth the transition.

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told a meeting of his lawmakers on Monday that Labour would never accept a no-deal exit.

"We will work on a cross-party basis to block a 'no-deal' outcome," he said.

Johnson is not only the bookmakers' clear favourite but, according to polls, the most popular with the 160,000 party members who will ultimately make the choice.