Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson Image Credit: Reuters

London: Boris Johnson, the front-runner to replace Theresa May as British prime minister, said delivering Brexit would be key to keeping the UK together, just hours after May warned her successor not to put the union at risk.

Johnson told a campaign event in York, in the north of England, he would prioritise the union over leaving the European Union. However, he also said failing to deliver Brexit could in turn split the nation apart.

The next prime minister will be faced with the intractable question of how to deal with the boundary between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as the Scottish National Party’s campaign for another independence referendum, leading to concern that Brexit could break up the union.

Rank and file Tory members said they would choose Brexit even if it meant abandoning the union, according to a YouGov poll in June. Asked if they’d stop Brexit if it lead to Scotland and Northern Ireland breaking away from the UK, 63 per cent and 59 per cent respectively said no. Yet, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond warned any leader pursuing a no deal Brexit would put the union and economy at risk.

“I think the union comes first, of course it does,” Johnson said during a question and answer session on Thursday evening. “But if we don’t get Brexit done, that will be the most prejudicial to the union.”

Speaking in Glasgow, Scotland on Thursday, May warned her successor to avoid an Irish border plan that would undermine the Good Friday, or Belfast Agreement that ended the conflict between Ireland and Northern Ireland almost two decades ago. Her own Brexit deal aimed to avoid the return of customs controls at the border over fears it could endanger the region’s peace process.

“There can and must be no false choice between honouring the solemn commitments of the Belfast Agreement and delivering on the decision of the British people in the EU referendum,” she said, while insisting she’d leave the issue to her successor who will enter Number 10 Downing Street on July 24.

Jeremy Hunt, the other candidate running to replace May, told the campaign event in York that Brexit is “the ultimate test” of democracy in Britain.