Tory leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt has claimed Angela Merkel told him the EU ‘would be willing to negotiate’ on the Brexit deal with a new prime minister.
The foreign secretary claimed the German chancellor said Brussels “would look at any solutions” the UK put forward to solve the Northern Irish border issue as he tried to emphasise his credentials as a deal-maker in the race to replace Theresa May.
Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Hunt said he was the right man for the job and, in a thinly-veiled criticism of his rival Boris Johnson, said an “ultra hard-line approach” would be met by “an ultra hard-line response”.
Asked if Johnson, his predecessor at the Foreign Office, had done a good job, he said he had made “a very big impact on the British position in the world because he led the Brexit campaign”.
But he said he was “quite a Marmite character” and hinted that some other EU foreign ministers “found him difficult to work with”.
He said the contest should be about picking “the leader most likely to get us a deal”, saying he had set up his own business and had “negotiated big deals in government”, citing the junior doctors’ contract while he was health secretary and the BBC licence fee when he was culture secretary.
“I have that experience and if we can get a deal, that is the only way we can avoid a general election,” he said.
Hunt said any deal with the EU needed to have the support of Parliament, suggesting he would include in his negotiating team the DUP, representatives of the hardline Brexiteer caucus the ERG, as well as Scottish and Welsh Conservatives.
On whether he was confident of renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement, he said: “If you’re asking me as someone who has done deals all their life ‘is there a deal here?’, yes, there is.
“Finding that deal is going to mean approaching the EU with the right kind of person. If we go in with an ultra hard-line approach, we will get an ultra hard-line response.
“Then we’ll get to the end of October and nothing will have changed expect we’ll be one step closer to a general election.”
Asked what he would do differently, he said the controversial “back-stop” written into the current Withdrawal Agreement was “not acceptable to Parliament” and he would back a new system “based around technology”.
Ridge said it was unlikely any such system would be ready by October 31 and pressed the Cabinet minister on whether he would be prepared to delay Brexit or leave without a deal on that date.
He said: “If the only way to leave the EU was without a deal, then I would do that because we have to honour that referendum result.
“But I would do so with a heavy heart, because of that risk to business and indeed to the union. I wouldn’t do so if there is a prospect of a good deal.”
When it was suggested he has flip-flopped on Brexit, having voted remain in 2016, but now backs leaving, he rejected the idea by saying “my position has been completely consistent”.
Elsewhere in the interview, he was asked about his views on abortion, having previously said he was in favour of reducing the legal time limit from 24 to 12 weeks, and whether it had since changed.
He said: “These are matters of conscience, yes, my view hasn’t changed on that.
“I respect the fact other people have very different views and that’s why these matters are matters for free votes in the House of Commons.”
On whether he would seek to change the policy if he was PM, Hunt said “it won’t be government policy to change the law” or to have a vote on it.
He was also quizzed about his six meetings with Donald Trump this week as the president made a state visit to the UK, revealing he had argued to him the NHS should not be part of any trade deal with the US after we leave the EU.
Asked if Trump was a “good president”, he replied that he was “a strong president”, saying he disagreed with him on issues like climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.
But he said “there are other things where I think we can learn” from the US, citing its faster economic growth than the UK and calling Trump “an effective communicator”.