Brexit posters are seen in Westminster in London. Image Credit: Reuters

LONDON: The race to become Britain’s next premier heated up on Sunday as Environment Secretary Michael Gove joined an already crowded field of hopefuls with competing visions of how to finally pull their divided country out of the EU.

Gove’s bid for the leadership in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum scuppered the chances of his one-time ally Boris Johnson, who is also running this time around and is seen as the current favourite.

Whoever is selected in the contest, which is expected to finish in July, will face increasingly frustrated European leaders who say they have made their final offer on Brexit after long and acrimonious talks.

May is bowing out with her legacy in tatters and the country in agony over what to do about the voters’ decision to abandon the European project after more than four decades.

The markets view the risk of Britain crashing out of the EU bloc when the twice-delayed departure date arrives on October 31 as uncomfortably high.

Their main concern is that some of the current front-runners to head May’s Conservative Party say they will get Brexit done at any cost.

“We will leave the EU on October 31, deal or no deal,” former foreign minister Boris Johnson said Friday in Switzerland.

Prefer a deal

Johnson’s main challenges will come from former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, who is viewed as an even more committed Euro-sceptic, as well as Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Gove.

A total of eight MPs have so far declared.

Raab and Hunt announced their candidacies in the Sunday papers.

Raab wrote in The Mail on Sunday that “I would prefer that we leave with a deal”.

But “we will not be taken seriously in Brussels unless we are clear that we will walk away on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, if the EU doesn’t budge,” Raab stressed.

Hunt had campaigned against Brexit in 2016 but has since reversed his stance.

“We can never take no-deal off the table but the best way of avoiding it is to make sure you have someone who is capable of negotiating a deal,” he told The Sunday Times.

Gove was to announce his intention to run at a literary festival later on Sunday, the BBC reported, positioning himself as a unity candidate able to heal his party.

Former House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, whose resignation on Thursday pushed May towards stepping down, also confirmed she will run.

Rise of Brexit Party

The contest is being held against the backdrop of European Parliament elections that the new Brexit Party of the anti-EU populist Nigel Farage is expected to win with about a third of the vote.

Polls indicate that the Conservatives will be punished for their bickering over Brexit and could finish as low as fifth — their worst result in a national election.

The candidates are also mindful of a party revolt over May’s fateful decision to court the pro-EU opposition with the promise of a second Brexit referendum.

The concession last week was designed to help ram her withdrawal agreement through parliament on the fourth attempt.

But it won her no converts and sparked a party coup attempt that forced May to walk away before she was pushed out.

Dark horses

Parliamentary party members will begin whittling down the field of contenders to a final two from June 10.

The finalists will then be put to a postal ballot of around 100,000 party members in July.

The field grew further on Saturday when Health Secretary Matt Hancock entered the race with a promise to take a more moderate approach.

Leaving the European Union without an agreement is “not an active policy choice that is available to the next prime minister,” Hancock told Sky News.

Hancock is viewed as one of the dark horses who might make it through a crowded field of more than a dozen names.

International Development Secretary Rory Stewart is also positioning himself as a more consensus-seeking alternative to Johnson.

“It now seems that (Johnson) is coming out for a no-deal Brexit,” Stewart told BBC radio.

“I think it would be a huge mistake. Damaging, unnecessary, and I think also dishonest.”

Yet neither Hancock nor Stewart would say if they would push ahead with May’s current agreement or try to secure added concessions from Brussels.