LONDON — Boris Johnson, the front-runner to succeed Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, insisted on Wednesday that Britain must keep the option of leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement as a “last resort.”

In a speech to launch his campaign for the Conservative leadership, Johnson said that, if elected by the party, he would take Britain out of the bloc with or without a deal on the agreed deadline of Oct. 31.

“After three years and two missed deadlines, we must leave the EU on 31 October and we must do better than the current withdrawal agreement that has been rejected three times by parliament,” he said.

“I don’t want a no-deal outcome but I think it is right for our great country to prepare for that outcome,” Johnson said.

He added that his priority would be to negotiate a “better deal” with Brussels, while developing plans for leaving without a deal to strengthen Britain’s bargaining position.

“It’s only if we have the guts and courage to get ready for (no deal) that we will carry any conviction in Brussels and get the deal we need,” Johnson said.

In Brussels, meanwhile, the European Commission said a no-deal Brexit “very much remains a possible, although undesirable, outcome.”

Even in the case of a no-deal Brexit, Britain would be expected to honor its financial obligations to the EU as a precondition for discussions on future relations, the commission said in a statement.

Johnson claimed last weekend that he might withhold Britain’s 39 billion-pound EU “divorce bill” unless Brussels offers better Brexit terms.

In Parliament’s elected main house, the Commons, an opposition Labour motion that could have allowed lawmakers to legislate against a no-deal Brexit was defeated by 309 to 298 votes on Wednesday.

May formally resigned as Conservative leader on Friday, though she remains prime minister while another leader is being chosen. The party confirmed on Monday that 10 candidates will vie to succeed her.

Another leading candidate, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, also launched his campaign on Wednesday, presenting himself as a champion of diversity, inclusivity and success through hard work.

“I believe now more than ever that at this moment, as we face the challenges that are unlike any that we have faced before, this calls for a new kind of leadership and a new kind of leader,” said Javid, who is the British-born son of migrants from Pakistan.

Johnson was challenged by a journalist about a series of gaffes and controversial remarks he has made during his political career.

“I will continue to speak as directly as I can,” Johnson said in his reply.

Asked about Johnson’s past remarks, Javid said he was “concerned about the rise of division in politics.”

“It’s not just in the U.K.,” he said. “Some politicians — I’m not talking about anyone in particular, but politicians around the world — think the way to win votes is to exploit division.”

Conservative lawmakers will hold a series of votes over the next two weeks, starting on Thursday, to narrow the field down to two candidates. The party’s 125,000 members will then select the new leader.

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Copyright 2019 Tribune Content Agency.

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