The UK will be forced into a general election that will obliterate the Conservative party if a new leader pushes for the UK to leave the EU with no deal in October, Jeremy Hunt has said.
Having written in a Telegraph article that a no-deal Brexit would be “political suicide”, Hunt said on Tuesday he did not believe parliament would allow the UK to leave with no deal on 31 October and would force an early election.
“I’m making this argument because I want to solve the Brexit crisis we are in and I’m worried if we don’t solve it we will face a political crisis that is far bigger than our legal relationship with the EU; it could lead to the destruction of our party system and the end of my own party,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“The biggest risk to Brexit now is not an issue of getting a majority, challenging as that is; the biggest risk is a general election, because the Labour party is now changing its position to a second-referendum party.”
The foreign secretary said he believed the result of a general election would be catastrophic for the Conservatives. “As we’ve learned from the local elections and the European elections, we must not go back to the electorate asking for their mandate until we have delivered what we said we’d deliver last time.”
Hunt, one of the frontrunners for the Tory leadership, who has previously been bullish about a no-deal exit, said he believed it was still possible to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, despite the EU having said it would not do so.
“We need to have a new negotiating team, with someone from the Democratic Unionist party, the [Tory hardline Brexit] European Research Group, someone from Scotland and Wales so that the union side of these issues is properly thought through,” he said.
He said the Labour party should not be involved because it had showed it was “not prepared to do this in good faith”.
However, Hunt said he had not asked the DUP or the ERG whether they would be willing to join negotiations led by him.
The justice secretary, David Gauke, who has ruled himself out of the race, hinted on Tuesday that he could back Hunt’s campaign and agreed with him about the risks of no deal.
“I think if we were to try to pursue a no-deal Brexit … then I think there are real risks for the country most importantly of all, but I don’t think that’s the right position for the Conservative party to be on. We have to be responsible,” he told Today.
Gauke said he had worked closely with the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and the international development secretary, Rory Stewart, who he said had been “very impressive so far”, and that he was encouraged by what Hunt was saying.
The housing minister Kit Malthouse became the 10th leadership contender on Monday night, telling the Sun he had seen his compromise proposal on the Northern Irish backstop cited by many leadership contenders which led him to believe he was the best to deliver it.
The “Malthouse compromise” of replacing the backstop with alternative arrangements, or negotiating a longer-term transition to a no-deal exit, has been backed by leavers and remainers in the Conservatives but was rejected as unworkable by Downing Street.
Malthouse, who entered the Commons in 2015, said he believed the new prime minister should come from the next generation. “This leadership campaign cannot be about the same old faces, scarred by wars that have split the Tory party over three years,” he said.
“We need to end the Brexit paralysis, and while I voted to leave the EU, I know that without unity across the UK, we cannot get a deal over the line. It’s time for a new generation to lead the charge into our future with boldness and vision.”
Other candidates who have declared in recent days include the environment secretary, Michael Gove, and the home secretary, Sajid Javid. Gove is understood to be unveiling a pledge on Tuesday to get rid of citizenship fees for all non-British EU citizens living in the UK before the referendum – around 3 million people.
Hancock wrote in the Mail on Tuesday that the next general election battle should be over the economy, once Brexit had been delivered, and that the Tories should stand on a platform of low tax and a higher living wage.
Stewart, who spent Monday visiting remain and leave areas of London and challenging voters to talk to him about his campaign, was endorsed overnight by the veteran MP and grandson of Winston Churchill, Nicholas Soames.
Stewart said he believed many Tory colleagues were “taking the party to the right … I think a no-deal Brexit would divide the country, divide the party.
“You can’t threaten someone in negotiation with something you can’t deliver. I’ve negotiated in Iraq and in Afghanistan and the lesson I’ve taken from that is the key thing is to get agreement on what shared future you want together.”
Stewart said he would take any proposed deal to a citizens’ assembly.
He said it would be a “jury of 500 ordinary people, we would go out to them and they would sit and take evidence in public, sitting seven days a week, and they would talk about the detailed issues of Brexit, hearing from the experts and … they would make the recommendations back to parliament”.
He pointed out that a similar process was used to find a solution to the issue of abortion in Ireland. “Look how well it worked in Ireland. I think it would work here too.”