UK PM candidates say time limit would not make Northern Irish backstop acceptable

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FILE PHOTO: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, leadership candidates for Britain’s Conservative Party, attend Britain’s Next Prime Minister: The ITV Debate at MediaCityUK in Salford, Britain July 9, 2019. Matt Frost/ITV/Handout via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) – The two candidates vying to be Britain’s next prime minister both said on Monday that they would not be willing to accept the so-called Northern Irish backstop element of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, even if a time limit was set.

Opposition to the backstop, designed to prevent the return of a hard border in Ireland in the event of a no-deal exit, was one of the key reasons May’s deal was rejected three times by parliament.

Asked during a leadership debate whether the backstop, which would in effect have kept Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain in a customs union with the EU, would be acceptable if a time limit could be agreed, both frontrunner Boris Johnson and foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said it would not.

“I’m not attracted to time limits or unilateral escape hatches or all these elaborate devices, glosses, codicils and so on that you could apply to the backstop,” Johnson said.

Hunt agreed, adding: “The backstop, as it is, is dead … I don’t think tweaking it with a time limit will do the trick, we’ve got to find a new way.”

The two candidates’ positions go beyond the concessions that May tried – and failed – to negotiate with the EU, setting a high bar for the next leader’s attempts to renegotiate the Brexit deal.

The European Union has said it is not prepared to renegotiate the deal at all, but both Hunt and Johnson are promising to do so and want to take Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31.

Reporting by William James and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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