London: Brexit figurehead Boris Johnson said Tuesday that Britain “must come out” of the EU by the new October deadline as he fended off his four remaining UK leadership race rivals in his first TV debate.
The former foreign minister kept his cool and made no evident stumbles after seeing his advantage grow in a second-round ballot held earlier Tuesday by lawmakers from the ruling Conservatives in the lower House of Commons.
Johnson had ducked out of the first TV showdown on Sunday and has carefully stage-managed his media engagements in a contest that remains his to lose.
He cast himself on Tuesday as the one politician able to bring Britain successfully out of the European Union and therefore deliver the Brexit that UK voters called for three years ago.
“We must come out on October 31 because otherwise I’m afraid we face a catastrophic loss of confidence in politics,” said Johnson in the hour-long BBC television question-and-answer session with voters.
“I think the British people are thoroughly fed up.”
But neither he nor the other contenders raised their hands when asked by the BBC to do so if they could “guarantee” that Brexit will happen by October 31.
Frantic search for leader
The surprisingly even-tempered debate did little to alter a growing sense that Johnson would need to make an error of monumental proportions to lose at this stage.
The Guardian newspaper called Johnson’s performance “sober and sensible”.
“Still the clear front-runner, still almost certainly the next PM,” it wrote.
Johnson picked up 126 of the 313 Conservative MPs’ votes cast Tuesday while hardline former Brexit minister Dominic Raab got knocked out after falling three short of 33-vote threshold.
Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt wo 46 votes and environment minister Michael Gove 41.
Moderate international development minister Rory Stewart continued his against-the-odds challenge by expanding his support base from last week’s 19 to 37.
Interior minister Sajid Javid scraped through to the next round of coting with exactly 33.
Britain is frantically searching for a leader after Prime Minister Theresa May stepped down last month over her repeated failure to deliver Brexit on time.
Her successor will be saddled with both resolving Britain deepest political crisis in generations and setting the terms of how it deals with the rest of Europe for decades to come.
Further rounds of voting scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday will whittle the list of contenders down to just two.
The finalists will face the ruling party’s 160,000 grassroots members in a vote next month to decide the winner, who will become the next prime minister.
Johnson’s lead is so substantial that some UK media say the others are simply fighting for a good spot in his future government.
Stewart fired the most direct barbs at Johnson on Tuesday by arguing that “no-deal \(Brexit) is not a credible threat”.
Both Hunt and Gove repeated that a further delay may be required if a Brexit deal was within reach.
“If we were nearly there, then I would take a bit longer,” Hunt said.
Gove said that he would also allow “extra time” if a solution was in sight.
But Javid said it was “fundamental” to get out of the EU by the new October deadline no matter what.
“We have got to learn from our mistakes,” said Javid.
UK politicians are split between ardent eurosceptics who would prefer to see Britain leave without any strings attached to the bloc.
Moderate Brexit backers want some sort of deal that preserves established economic links between the ancient trading partners.
Johnson has warned throughout that he is prepared to get Britain out of the European Union without an agreement - as long as it is done by the October 31 deadline.
But he has also called this tough talk a negotiating tactic designed to scare Brussels and force it to compromise on the nagging issue of status of Irish border.
EU leaders have long ruled out re-opening the binding part of the agreement they all signed with May last year.
Only Stewart is openly trying to salvage May’s deal in the hope of pushing it through Britain’s splintered parliament at the fourth attempt.
The Daily Telegraph suggested that Stewart and Johnson had moved closer to a face-to-face showdown “after emerging as the big winners” from Tuesday’s vote and debate.