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  1. ITV Report

Conservative leadership hopefuls Stewart, Leadsom and Harper clash on Brexit deadline

Three more Conservative candidates have launched their campaigns to become leader of the Party - and Prime Minister.

Andrea Leadsom, Rory Stewart and Mark Harper have all made their pitch -- with Brexit once again the main source of division.

But for the moment there has still been no word from the candidate they all have to beat: Boris Johnson.

The launches came on the same day Labour said they will attempt to block any attempt at a no-deal Brexit.

Leadership hopeful Rory Stewart launched his campaign to become the next prime minister, calling on voters to make a choice between "seriousness" and "fairy stories".

While Andrea Leadsom and Mark Harper focused on the UK's deadline.

Former Cabinet minister Ms Leadsom, who resigned over Theresa May's handling of Brexit negotiations, said leaving the EU by October 31 was a must and a "hard, red line".

Yet outsider Mr Harper, who served as chief whip under former prime minister David Cameron, said it may not feasible for the UK to secure a deal by October 31.

  • ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston says Rory Stewart's campaign is on the opposite end of the spectrum to that of Andrea Leadsom

Mr Stewart was the last of the three candidates to launch his leadership bid on Tuesday in which he said he wants a "fairer and greener" UK and promised his "energy of action and leadership" would help to unite a country standing at a crossroads.

However, the International Development Secretary also had to clarify remarks he made indicating he could support an opposition Commons move on Wednesday aimed at blocking a no-deal outcome.

Launching his leadership bid at a circus tent on the South Bank in London, Mr Stewart floated the idea of a "Brexit Assembly" of citizens to break the parliamentary deadlock on EU withdrawal.

He accused advocates of a no-deal exit of telling "fairy stories".

Asked about a cross-party bid to block a no-deal Brexit and prevent prorogation of Parliament, Mr Stewart said: "I am entirely against no-deal. I am entirely against prorogation.

"I haven't read the details of this. My instinct is I would be wholly supportive of a move that tried to do that."

Soon after the event, Mr Stewart tweeted he would not back the Labour move.

He said: "For the avoidance of any doubt - I have read the Labour motion proposed for tomorrow and I will not be voting for it."

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Mr Stewart's denial he would back Labour came after shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said his party will use its opposition time on Wednesday to try to give control of Parliament's agenda to MPs on June 25.

The motion - which has the backing of other opposition parties as well as Tory former minister Sir Oliver Letwin - could be used to try to prevent the next prime minister forcing through a no-deal break with the EU.

Sir Keir Starmer announced Labour will try and block no-deal. Credit: PA

Mr Stewart appeared to question whether Mr Johnson as PM would the right person to give orders to the commanders of Britain's nuclear strike force.

Asked about Mr Johnson, Mr Stewart said he had spoken to Conservative Party associations across the UK.

He added: "When you ask them, do you really - and I don't want to make this too personal - do you really feel that this is the person that you want engaging with the detail and the future of your health and education system?

"Is this the person that you want writing the instructions to the nuclear submarines?

"Is this the person that you want embodying the nation on the world stage and guiding you through the most difficult choice that Britain has faced for 50 years?

"I trust the Conservative members to arrive at the correct answers."

Mr Stewart attacked leadership rivals advocating a no-deal Brexit, accusing them of peddling "fairy stories".

He said: "It is not just no to a deal. It is no to everything. It is no to Europe, it is no to trade, it is no to Parliament, it is no to reality. We are not a 'no' country.

"Underlying all these stories that the other candidates are putting forward that masquerade as optimism is a failure - a failure to grasp reality. What they are giving you is fairy stories.

"The way that you change that world is being honest to the way the world is."

  • Watch Rory Stewart launch his leadership bid

At the other end of the Brexit spectrum was Ms Leadsom who refused to rule out a no-deal Brexit, saying it would be the "legal default position" by October 31 if no deal between London and Brussels was agreed.

The Brexiteer, who voted to leave in the 2016 referendum, said: "Outside the EU our United Kingdom has an extraordinary future - one that will build on a thriving economy to promote social justice, not only at home but right around the world."

She continued: "Our country needs a leader who will be decisive, who will get things done, but will also be compassionate.

"Someone who will stand up for democracy, equality and fairness - giving every single one of our citizens the chance to fulfil their own aspirations."

Mrs Leadsom said: "Over the past three years politics has failed dismally - it has failed to deliver on the biggest democratic decision in our history.

"Fulfilling that democratic decision is urgent and vital, it cannot and will not be put off any longer.

"Leaving the EU on October 31 is for me a hard, red line."

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Ms Leadsom gave a break-down of what her plans would be in negotiating with Brussels, should she become leader.

She said securing a "temporary free trade agreement" with Ireland would be needed to ensure there was no resurrection of a hard border.

Introducing new legislation on rights for EU citizens, agreeing a security relationship, air traffic agreements and a deal for Gibraltar would all be priorities for Leadsom.

Mrs Leadsom also said she would focus on “bringing the country back together and healing divisions” and listed her priorities as building new homes, cutting crime and promoting business.

She also promised to help the UK transform into a carbon neutral economy and said she would prioritise funding for schools and policing.

In reference to her quitting the leadership race in 2016 when she was against Theresa May in the final two, she said: “Of all candidates I am the one who will not be withdrawing under any circumstances.

“I think that we have tested that to destruction over the last three years.”

Asked about the lessons she learnt from the last campaign, Mrs Leadsom said: “First of all stay positive, stay true to yourself.

“Put your country ahead of yourself.

“And I’m just going to say, never say ‘as a mother’.”

  • Watch Andrea Leadsom launch her leadership bid

Unlike Ms Leadsom,Mr Harper refused to rule out extending the EU deadline of October.

The self-described "underdog" said he was the only candidate who had a "credible, deliverable plan".

He said: "One thing I'm not promising, as much as I'd like, is that we will leave deal or no-deal come October 31.

"Why? It's because I'm being straight with you and it just isn't possible.

"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."

The former immigration minister said it is "not credible" to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement and get it through both Houses of Parliament before October 31.

He suggested he would consider a no-deal Brexit, but only after he had credibly "done everything humanly possible to get a deal."

"If we approach our European Union partners in a spirit of openness, and we bust a gut, we do everything we can to get a deal, and they are simply not prepared to budge, then in those circumstances, and only in those circumstances, do I think there will be a majority in the House of Commons to leave without a deal," he added.

  • Watch Mark Harper launch his leadership bid

In a swipe at fellow Tory contender, Boris Johnson, Mr Harper said it was not right to "promise more money to higher rate taxpayers", after Mr Johnson promised to cut taxes for high earners.

He said he wanted to put more money into education, further education and apprenticeships, but he was "not going to be plucking figures out of the air and making commitments" at this early stage.

The 49-year-old also said he would assemble a Cabinet "that doesn't leak like a sieve", and instill "proper discipline" and a "functioning Whips Office" if he got the top job.

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He dismissed the idea his campaign was simply an attempt to get a Cabinet role and said he was standing because he has the "skills to get the job done."

The final question he was asked was more light-hearted, with the MP for the Forest of Dean asked: "Who would win in a fight, a lion or a bear?"

He replied: "On the basis that the lion is the symbol of Britain, I'm going to say the lion."