LONDON: The runaway favorite to become Britain’s next prime minister on Sunday vowed to push for an EU trade deal that limited immigration, as her most high-profile challenger struggled to brush off claims of treachery.
“The Brexit vote gave us a very clear message that we couldn’t allow free movement (of people) to continue as it had,” interior minister Theresa May said of last week’s stunning decision to leave the European Union.
“It’s important we get the right deal about controlling free movement, but it’s also about ensuring that we get the best deal possible on the trade of goods and services,” May, who campaigned to stay in the bloc, told ITV political show “Peston on Sunday.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted that a British trade deal would have to include freedom of movement, but French finance minister Michel Sapin later said that all issues were “on the table.”
May said she would seek to “guarantee” that EU nationals already in Britain would be protected by any change in the immigration law, and said there was “no timescale” for leaving the union.
“This is not about the UK retreating, this is about the UK going centre stage in the world,” she added.
May is polling around 30 points higher than closest challenger Michael Gove among Conservative Party members, who will decide Cameron’s successor, according to an ICM survey published in the Sun on Sunday.
She has the strong backing of the party’s MPs, who will whittle the five candidates down to two, but insisted it was in the best interest of the party that “there should be a contest” rather than a coronation.
However, she once again ruled out holding another general election before 2020.
Former education minister Michael Gove was expected to be her stiffest opponent, but appears to have alienated MPs over his last-minute withdrawal of support for close referendum ally Boris Johnson in order to launch his own bid.
“I love my country, I could not recommend that Boris be prime minister,” he told BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday, when faced with accusations that he had knifed his friend in the back.
“He was not the man and this was not the time.” he said of Johnson, who decided to pull his bid following Gove’s defection.
Johnson’s sister Rachel wrote in the Mail on Sunday that Gove had “knifed Boris Johnson in the back and in the front, pushed him under a bus, ran over him several times and then declared he was running for the leadership himself,” calling him a “political psychopath”.
Gove’s waning popularity has opened the way for Brexit campaigner Angela Leadsom to become the main challenger, but she also woke up to difficult headlines after it was revealed she had said in 2013 that leaving the EU would be a “disaster.”
Energy minister Leadsom, who has now overtaken Gove with the bookmakers, told the BBC she changed her mind when it became “very clear that the EU is just not reformable.”
She called May “a superb candidate” but argued that the country needed to be led by “someone who fervently believes and understands the opportunities of leaving the EU,” and who would “get on with” the process of leaving the bloc.
Both main parties are gripped by turmoil, and embattled opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn on Sunday warned rebelling Labor MPs that his grassroots supporters would oppose any attempts to unseat him.
Corbyn has the crucial backing of the unions and was elected last year in a landslide by ordinary Labor Party members, but last week lost a no-confidence vote of party MPs by 172 to 40.
“I am ready to reach out to Labor MPs who didn’t accept my election and oppose my leadership,” he wrote in the Sunday Mirror. “But they also need to respect the democracy of our party and the views of Labor’s membership, which has increased by more than 60,000 in the past week alone.” AFP