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World Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt raise Brexit stakes with views on Irish backstop

Conservative leadership contenders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt take part in a debate in Manchester.

MATT FROST/AFP/Getty Images

The two contenders to become Britain’s next prime minister raised the Brexit stakes by saying they will discard a contentious part of the European Union divorce deal agreed by outgoing leader Theresa May.

The British pound fell to a 27-month low of US$1.24 Tuesday after Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt appeared to make it more likely that the United Kingdom will leave the EU without an agreement on the terms to smooth the way.

Britain’s Parliament has repeatedly rejected Ms. May’s deal with the bloc, in large part because of a measure designed to keep goods and people flowing freely across the border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.

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Brexit supporters think the so-called backstop keeps Britain too closely bound to EU trade rules. Some have argued for an exit clause or time limit to ensure that Britain isn’t trapped in the backstop indefinitely.

But during a leadership debate Monday, front-runner Boris Johnson rejected “time limits or unilateral escape hatches or all these elaborate devices” and said “the problem is very fundamental.”

His rival, Jeremy Hunt, agreed that “the backstop, as it is, is dead.”

Britain is set to leave the EU on Oct. 31, and the candidates’ stance appeared to heighten the chance of a disruptive “no-deal” Brexit, because EU leaders insist there can be no withdrawal agreement without the backstop.

An invisible border is crucial to the regional economy, and also underpins the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Conservative legislator Simon Hoare, who heads Parliament’s Northern Ireland Committee, said “this is a very, very dangerous step that both men seem to have taken yesterday.”

He told Sky News that the consequences of a hard border were “beyond contemplation.”

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Most economists say that leaving the EU without an agreement would disrupt trade and plunge Britain into recession. Polls suggest a majority of Britons oppose a no-deal Brexit. But the 160,000 members of the Conservative Party who are choosing Britain’s next leader are strongly in favour of a hard Brexit.

Pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Dominic Grieve, a key player in continuing efforts by Parliament to rule out a no-deal exit from the EU, accused the two leadership candidates of giving in to “growing extremism” about Brexit.

“The consequence of that is to make the choices starker and starker,” he said.

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