LONDON (Reuters) - Michael Gove, a leading contenders to replace British Prime Minister Theresa May, said he would delay Brexit rather than rush into a no-deal exit that could trigger an election that would propel Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to power.
The United Kingdom could be heading towards a constitutional crisis over Brexit as many of the candidates vying to succeed May are prepared to leave the EU on Oct. 31 without a deal but parliament has indicated it will try to thwart such a scenario.
Nearly three years since the United Kingdom voted 52%-48% to leave the EU, the ruling Conservative Party had its worst result in centuries in a European election last month, and opinion polls indicate a snap election would produce a hung parliament.
Gove, who scuppered the 2016 leadership bid of former foreign minister Boris Johnson by withdrawing his support at the last moment to run himself, said he would seek a further delay to Brexit if efforts to renegotiate the deal were close to a breakthrough.
“Would it really be in our best interests to opt for a no-deal exit when just a little more time and effort could make all the difference?” Gove said in an article in the Daily Mail newspaper.
Other contenders - including Johnson, Andrea Leadsom, Dominic Raab and Sajid Javid - have said they would seek to negotiate a deal but, if that were not possible, they would then lead the world’s fifth largest economy out of the EU without any agreement.
Gove said to rush into a no-deal exit would lead to a Labour government propped up by the Scottish National Party which wants another referendum on Scottish independence.
“That would surely hand Downing Street to a Jeremy Corbyn government propped up by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. That would mean Brexit was lost, the future of our Union at risk and the levers of power handed to a Marxist,” he wrote.
Some European officials have cautioned that London will find it hard to delay Brexit again as EU leaders question what would be the point of an extension.
“It would be very, very, very difficult to reach an agreement on another extension, if at all requested,” said a senior government official of one EU member state who deals with EU affairs, including Brexit.
May’s failure to deliver Brexit by the original March 29 deadline destroyed her premiership. But any new British prime minister, expected to be in place by the last days of July, will face a deadlocked political system.
Parliament has repeatedly rejected May’s EU divorce deal but also failed to agree on how, when or even if the United Kingdom will leave the club it joined in 1973.
If a British leader went for a no-deal Brexit, lawmakers have vowed to prevent it. The easiest way would be to bring down the government in a vote of no confidence.
While the Conservative Party’s lawmakers, who get the first say on who should be prime minister, are divided over Brexit, the party’s 160,000 members, who get the final vote on candidates in a run off, are much more supportive of leaving without agreement.
The EU has refused to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement reached with May last November, and Ireland has indicated it is not willing to discuss changes to the Irish border “backstop” that upset the party which props up May’s minority government.
The backstop — designed to ensure frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland — would force the UK to follow many EU rules unless and until “alternative arrangements” ensuring no hard border were agreed.
“We need a new approach to Northern Ireland,” said Gove, a 51-year-old environment minister. “We have to remove any risk that we could be trapped in a backstop, so I will work with the Irish government and Brussels to secure a clear exit mechanism.”
Gove, a prominent Brexit campaigner during the 2016 referendum, said he was convinced the EU would negotiate and he said he wanted a bespoke Canada-style trade deal.
“Always choose Brexit over no Brexit,” Gove said. “If, finally, it comes to a decision between no deal and no Brexit, I will choose no deal.”
Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels