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Johnson makes borrowing pledge as Hunt vows to deliver Brexit sooner

UK News | Published:

The two Tory leadership hopefuls faced questions during set-piece Sunday morning political programme interviews.

Tory leadership race

Boris Johnson insisted he is prepared to borrow to finance “great objectives”, as Tory leadership rival Jeremy Hunt claimed he would deliver Brexit sooner.

Mr Johnson pledged to use “headroom” to allow him to invest in multiple projects at the same time as cutting taxes if he succeeds Theresa May, stressing he is “prepared to borrow” but “keep fiscal responsibility”.

He also outlined a pledge to increase the number of special educational needs free schools as part of his £4.6 billion school funding plan, with questions raised about how he would fund this alongside extra police and broadband development.

On proroguing Parliament to push through Brexit, Mr Johnson said he did not want to do it nor expected to – but kept the option on the table.

Conservative Party leadership contender Jeremy Hunt
Conservative Party leadership contender Jeremy Hunt (Jeff Overs/BBC)

He also claimed his words have been “totally taken out of context” when it came to reports he said “f*** business” when asked about business concerns last year.

He cited the same defence when questioned about previous remarks in which he referred to black people with “watermelon smiles”, to which he replied “in a wholly satirical way”, and women in burkas who “look like letterboxes”.

Mr Johnson continues to refuse to debate Mr Hunt head-to-head before ballot papers are sent out to the Tory membership, including a Sky News debate planned for Monday, which will now see Mr Hunt interviewed by Kay Burley.

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In his own leadership pitch interview, Foreign Secretary Mr Hunt suggested he would be prepared to pursue “with a heavy heart” a no-deal Brexit despite the risks to business and said some of his spending pledges would be delayed as a result – although he would push on with a cut to corporation tax.

Mr Hunt sought to maintain a tough sounding approach to Brexit, including a warning he could refuse to pay part of Britain’s £39 billion exit bill to the EU if negotiations fail, while repeating that he believes he can secure a deal.

Mr Johnson, appearing on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday, said of his spending plans: “There is headroom of about £22-25 billion at the moment.”

Asked if he was prepared to see borrowing increase, he added: “If it’s borrowing to finance great infrastructure projects and there is an opportunity to borrow at low rates and do things for the long-term benefit of the country then we should do them.”

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He also said: “I’m prepared to borrow to finance certain great objectives but overall we will keep fiscal responsibility and keep going with the general trajectory of ensuring that this country pays its way and lives within its means.”

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson refuses to debate Mr Hunt head-to-head before ballot papers are sent out to Tory members (Peter Powell/PA)

On temporarily suspending Parliament to push through Brexit, Mr Johnson said: “I don’t like the idea of proroguing, I’m not remotely attracted to it but MPs have to understand their responsibility to get this thing done and that was by far the best solution.

“I don’t want to prorogue Parliament nor do I expect to, I don’t think that’s going to be necessary, and I think that it’s far more important that MPs focus on where we are because politics has changed since March 29 and people can see that unless we get Brexit done there is going to be a continuing haemorrhage of trust and of confidence in my party and Labour as well.”

Mr Hunt, appearing on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show, said it was a “fake debate” when asked if the UK will definitely leave the EU this year.

The Conservative leadership hopeful said: “If we got to the end of October and we’ve got a deal and we’re trying to get it through Parliament but we need a few more parliamentary days, I’m not going to rip up that deal – Boris is.

“At the beginning of October if there is no prospect of a deal that can get through Parliament then I will leave at the end of October because that is our democratic promise to the British people.”

Pressed further on the date of the UK’s departure from the EU, Mr Hunt said: “I believe we’ll leave sooner with me than with Boris or anyone else because I am the person most likely to negotiate a deal – and that is the quickest way to leave.

“What you’re saying is something that’s a dilemma. Parliament is trying to stop a no-deal Brexit, they succeeded before, they may succeed again – that is an issue that will face any prime minister, whatever they’ve said about October 31.”

Mr Hunt earlier said some of his spending commitments “would have to wait” if there was a no-deal Brexit as money would be diverted to support businesses, adding: “I wouldn’t drop them because I think we can make a success of no-deal… they would take longer because you wouldn’t have that money at your fingertips straight away.”

He added: “Of those commitments, the one I would not drop is the one to reduce corporation tax. It’s not the tax cut people are talking about on the doorstep when you meet them but it is one that would fire up the economy in a way that would be helpful in a no-deal context because we would have economic bumpiness and we need to support businesses.”

Mr Hunt, questioned if he would look people in the eye and tell them they should be prepared to lose their job as he will pursue a no-deal Brexit, replied: “I’d do so but I’d do it with a heavy heart precisely because of the risks.”

Mr Hunt also said he wants an “international” team to negotiate the UK’s trade deal post-Brexit, with discussions taking place with Canadian former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Mr Harper, writing on Twitter, said he would be “willing to assist whoever serves as the next leader of the UK Conservative Party on trade matters, should they wish”.

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