Boris Johnson, the leading candidate to succeed Theresa May as Britain's prime minister, said yesterday he would withhold an already agreed 39 billion pound ($49.65 billion) Brexit payment until the European Union gives Britain better withdrawal terms.
Johnson is one of 11 lawmakers vying to run the world's fifth-largest economy after May resigned as leader of the governing Conservatives on Friday, having failed to unite Parliament or the country behind her Brexit plan. Britain is mired in its deepest political crisis in decades over how, when and whether it should leave the EU, a decision that will fall to May's successor and affect both its future role on the world stage and prosperity for generations to come. May stepped down as Conservative leader on Friday and formally triggered the race for a successor but will remain prime minister until a new leader is chosen. The battle is expected to conclude by the end of next month.
As the contest to replace May gathered pace yesterday, Johnson made his first major intervention, targeting the large pro-Brexit wing of his Conservative Party with a promise to take a hard line with Brussels over the terms of Britain's exit.
"I think our friends and partners need to understand that the money is going to be retained until such time as we have greater clarity about the way forward," Johnson told the Sunday Times. "In getting a good deal, money is a great solvent and a great lubricant."
The main rivals, including Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt, Agriculture Minister Michael Gove and Interior Minister Sajid Javid, also want to renegotiate or modify the deal, but none have threatened not to pay the exit bill May agreed on with the EU in 2018.
Johnson, popular with Conservative grassroots members who will be given a choice between the final two candidates, first has to win enough support among elected Conservative lawmakers, where the depth of his support is less well-known, to make it onto that shortlist. Conservative members of Parliament will begin whittling the list down this week with a series of votes.
Meanwhile, Conservative leadership contenders rush to admit past sins and avoid any surprises during what is expected to be a heated contest. Gove admitted using cocaine on "several occasions" two decades ago. Gove is the latest candidate in the race to replace May to acknowledge using banned substances. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the Times he drank a "cannabis lassi" while backpacking in India in his youth. International Development Secretary Rory Stewart told the Telegraph he smoked opium at a wedding in Iran 15 years ago. Rival Dominic Raab, who previously admitted smoking cannabis as a student, told the BBC he admired Gove's honesty. He says he won't criticize anyone for "holding their hand up and saying ‘I got that wrong.'" Johnson, an ex-London mayor, has previously suggested he may also have tried to use cocaine, but later denied he had actually taken the drug.