Contenders to be next UK leader divided over no-deal Brexit

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FILE – In this Wednesday, March 13, 2019 file photo, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London. Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement that she will leave 10 Downing Street has set off a fierce competition to succeed her as Conservative Party leader _ and as the next prime minister. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

LONDON (AP) — The race to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May is becoming a battle over whether Britain should leave the European Union without a divorce agreement — or whether that would cause economic and political mayhem.

May’s Conservatives are reeling after the upstart Brexit Party won Britain’s election for European Parliament seats. The Conservatives came a humiliating fifth.

That led some Conservatives, including leadership contenders Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, to argue that the U.K. must leave the EU as scheduled on Oct. 31, even if it hasn’t approved a withdrawal deal.

Others say crashing out of the bloc would be reckless.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Tuesday that trying to leave without a deal would lead Parliament to trigger a national election that would see the Conservative Party “annihilated” because of its failure to make good on its promise to oversee an orderly Brexit.

“That would be political suicide, not just for me but for all of us in the Conservative Party,” he said.

Hunt said that as prime minister he would seek to renegotiate Britain’s withdrawal agreement with the EU — something the bloc has repeatedly ruled out.

“There will be no renegotiation,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said as he arrived at an EU summit in Brussels Tuesday.

Other Conservative contenders say the success of the Brexit Party led by veteran euroskeptic Nigel Farage shows that Britain must leave the EU at any cost.

“Political suicide actually lies in not having a clean break from the EU and not leaving on the 31st October,” said Conservative legislator Esther McVey, who is also running for the top job.

Britain’s Parliament has voted not to leave the EU without a deal, but also three times rejected May’s agreement with the bloc.

May finally admitted defeat last week and announced she will step down as Conservative leader on June 7.

So far 11 Conservative lawmakers have entered a party contest to replace her. The winner will become Britain’s next prime minister without the need for a national election.

Arriving for the EU meeting — one of her last foreign trips as prime minister — May said “it’s a matter of great regret to me that I haven’t been able to deliver Brexit.”

“That matter is now for my successor, and they will have to find a way of addressing the very strongly held views on both sides of this issue.”

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Mike Corder in Brussels contributed to this story.

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Follow AP’s full coverage of Brexit at: https://www.apnews.com/Brexit

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