May defends backstop and warns successor not to put Belfast Agreement at risk

Hunt says result of the leadership contest is not a foregone conclusion, and there is all to play for

Tory leadership candidate Boris Johnson attempting to make sausages during a visit to a food company near Bedale, Yorkshire. Photograph:  Darren Staples/Bloomberg

Tory leadership candidate Boris Johnson attempting to make sausages during a visit to a food company near Bedale, Yorkshire. Photograph: Darren Staples/Bloomberg

 

Theresa May has defended the Northern Ireland backstop and warned her successor not to pursue a form of Brexit that puts the Belfast Agreement at risk.

Speaking in Scotland, the British prime minister said a seamless border made possible the compromise embodied in the peace settlement.

“At the heart of the Belfast Agreement, which enabled the people of Northern Ireland to move beyond that past into a shared future, was a compromise. That people who identify as Irish can live in Northern Ireland but, to all intents and purposes, operate across the whole of Ireland in their day-to-day lives and in their business activities without any semblance of a border. That compromise was enabled by having a seamless border.

“The backstop insurance policy we agreed with the EU, which would have been activated only if we were unable to agree our new relationship within the implementation period, respected that compromise. And the future relationship will need to respect it.”

Mrs May was speaking before Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt took part in the latest Conservative leadership hustings. Both candidates have said they would leave the EU without a deal unless the backstop was removed or overhauled.

Mrs May said she would not give her successor advice on how to negotiate Brexit while protecting the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“I will simply say this. There can and must be no false choice between honouring the solemn commitments of the Belfast Agreement and delivering on the decision of the British people in the EU referendum. We must do both. Brexit certainly poses a challenge for the union – but it is one which can be met by working with the grain of the United Kingdom’s core strengths.”

Mr Hunt was on the defensive on Thursday after he said he would allow a free vote on foxhunting and would vote in favour of lifting the ban on it. Following criticism from Conservative MPs, he sought to retreat from the commitment, saying that changing the law on foxhunting would not be a priority and adding that there was no Commons majority for such a move.

Free vote

“I was just restating the position in our manifesto from 2017 that there should be a free vote if it ever looked like that majority would change,” he told the BBC.

“But it wouldn’t be my priority as prime minister. We’re going to have Brexit, we’ve the social care system....We’ve got huge economic priorities that are going to have to be addressed – so that wouldn’t be where I’d focus my energies.”

Speaking in Yorkshire on Thursday, Mr Hunt said that the result of the leadership contest was not a foregone conclusion, and there was all to play for.

“I think at the start of the campaign the people around me thought this was a very long shot. Now it feels like much more of a contest. We’ve had some surprises. We had the surprise of Trump. We had the surprise of Brexit. I think we could have the surprise of the Conservative Party leadership election too. I think there’s all to play for.”