Boris Johnson has refused demands to categorically rule out suspending parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit without the consent of MPs.
The frontrunner to be the next prime minister confirmed it was one of the options on the table, after failing to give clear answers on several other occasions.
Johnson said on Wednesday that the chance of a no-deal Brexit was “a million to one against”, but he has also promised to completely replace the “defunct” withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May and leave the EU by 31 October. The EU has repeatedly said the deal is not up for renegotiation, leading the odds of leaving without a deal to rise.
Speaking at a hustings for Conservative members in Bournemouth on Thursday, the former foreign secretary said he did not want to prorogue parliament to prevent MPs blocking a no-deal Brexit but it should not be removed as an option.
Asked whether he would do it, he said: “I would rather than confiding in this archaic device to get this thing done at my own behest, I would rather confide in the maturity of common sense of parliamentarians, all of whom are now staring down the barrel of public distrust.”
He was then pressed to categorically rule it out and failed to do so, saying: “I’m not attracted to the idea of a no-deal exit from the EU but, you know, I think it would be absolutely folly to rule it out. I think it’s an essential tool of our negotiation.
“I don’t envisage the circumstances in which it will be necessary to prorogue parliament, nor am I attracted to that expedient.”
Johnson got the loudest applause of the hustings by saying he would take a different approach to the negotiations than May had done. He claimed to be an “irenic person” and in favour of dialogue but argued that “a little bit more resolve is called for and a little bit more sense that we can actually get this done”.
On domestic policy, he argued for students to be taken out of the immigration cap, reform of the student loan system to solve the social care crisis, and an extra £5bn to the school system.
He also criticised his rival, Jeremy Hunt, for pledging to cancel student debt for some entrepreneurs employing at least 10 people full time for five years.
“I think people, a lot of people, would automatically be defining themselves as entrepreneurs,” Johnson said.
Hunt opened his appearance at the hustings by saying the party should not pick a “populist” to fight Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn but “choose our own Jeremy” to stick up for business, aspiration and social justice for young people.
The foreign secretary also made a surprising pledge to resign as prime minister if he doesn’t manage to “deliver Brexit and deliver it very quickly”.
Asked by moderator Hannah Vaughan Jones if he was “concerned by threats it could be the shortest tenure in history”, he replied: “Well, if we get this wrong, it will be.
“And we have got the biggest constitutional crisis in living memory and that is because MPs like me made a promise to the people that we would deliver the outcome of the referendum whatever it was and we failed.”
He was then asked if he would resign if he failed to deliver the referendum’s result. “Of course, no prime minister is going to last any time at all if they don’t deliver Brexit and deliver it very quickly,” he replied.
“That’s the reality of British politics … That’s about anyone who does that job.”
As he sought to win over the highly Eurosceptic membership, he said he would introduce a “no-deal bill” in the first Queen’s speech in the new parliamentary session. He also said he would introduce new legislation to ensure every child leaves school able to read and write and got booed by the audience for committing to the HS2 highspeed rail line.
He was pressed about how he would fulfil his pledges without raising debt, after the Institute for Fiscal Studies said his tax and spending proposals amounting to more than £60bn could exacerbate pressures on public finances.
“All my commitments are funded through a pledge that I will keep reducing debt as a proportion of GDP over the economic cycle so we won’t be building up debt for future generations,” he said.
“We actually have now about £26bn of headroom a year, which is why we can afford some of these commitments.”
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