Tory candidates clash on whether Brexit can happen on 31 October

Conservative leadership candidates have clashed over whether the UK can leave the EU on 31 October, on day two of the official race to be the next prime minister.

Ex-cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom branded herself an “optimistic yet realistic Brexiteer” as she set out her plans for a “managed” exit from the EU at her leadership campaign launch.

She described the new Brexit deadline of Halloween as a “hard red line” and claimed “politics has failed dismally” over the last three years, due to the failure to deliver on the 2016 EU referendum result.

Vowing to take the UK out of the EU this autumn, should she enter 10 Downing Street, Ms Leadsom said: “In all circumstances we are leaving the EU on 31 October this year.

“Our country and our party cannot afford any more indecisiveness.”

Promoting her Brexit proposals as a third way between leaving the EU without a divorce agreement, or not leaving at all, she added: “My managed exit offers sensible measures that sensible politicians both here in parliament and in the EU will, in my opinion, agree to.

“So I don’t think we have to have the choice between no Brexit and no deal.

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“I think a managed exit is the way forward.”

Ms Leadsom has previously set out her “managed” exit plan as including legislation to enshrine in law those areas of Brexit that have already been successfully negotiated by the UK and EU, as well as to protect the rights of UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK.

In addition, she will propose a summit for EU leaders in early September to agree “sensible measures” with the UK for a “smooth exit”.

Ms Leadsom, who withdrew from the 2016 Tory leadership contest to hand victory to Theresa May, also promised she would not be exiting the race early this time round.

She said: “It’s fair to say, of all candidates, I am the one who will not be withdrawing under any circumstances.

“We’ve tested that to destruction over the last three years.”

Ms Leadsom also took a swipe at rival candidate Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary, who has previously said he is “probably not” a feminist.

“I think we should all be feminists,” she said.

“Feminism is about equality, I’m a total egalitarian and I believe our country wants equality, fairness, diversity – so what’s not to like about being a feminist?”

Later on Tuesday, former Tory chief whip Mark Harper disregarded the 31 October deadline.

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He said he would be “comfortable” with a no-deal Brexit but his “preference” is to leave with a divorce agreement.

Mr Harper, who labelled himself a “serious underdog” in the Tory race, added: “Where perhaps I will not make myself popular with my colleagues is when I say that it is not going to be possible to leave on 31 October.

“I would love to, I voted in parliament to leave on 29 March, I voted to leave on 12 April, I voted against extending Article 50 twice. But not enough people in parliament did so.

“I’m afraid it is not credible to say you can renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and get it through both Houses of Parliament by 31 October.”

He suggested MPs would block a no-deal Brexit without an attempt to renegotiate the withdrawal deal.

“As a chief whip who has had to operate when the numbers were tight, I know how parliament works and I know how to count,” he said.

Mr Harper promised to seek changes to the Irish border backstop with the EU.

He also attacked his rival candidates – all of whom served or are still serving in Mrs May’s cabinet – for failing to deliver Brexit.

He said: “Everyone else in this race has, at some point over the last three years, been sat around the cabinet table and has participated in the decisions that have led to not leaving the EU three years after that referendum.

“Every single one of them has participated in fundamental misjudgements that have got us to where we are.”

There are 10 candidates in the Tory leadership contest ahead of the first ballot of Conservative MPs on Thursday.

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