Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative leadership contender, has welcomed reports that the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator is ready to quit.
Downing Street denied that Olly Robbins, who is disliked by Brexiters, had handed in his resignation. But people with knowledge of the situation said he was likely to only serve a new prime minister for a short transitional period, having done the job for longer than he anticipated.
Mr Hunt was asked about media reports of his impending departure during a hustings in Manchester on Saturday night.
“This is a good moment to change our approach. Now is the moment we have to get this right, deliver a different deal and one we can get through parliament,” he said. Mr Robbins helped design the “backstop”, a way of dealing with the Irish border that infuriated many Conservatives. It would keep Northern Ireland inside the EU customs union if there were no trade deal with the UK.
Downing Street said claims of Mr Robbins’ resignation were not true. But when those reports were announced, many in the crowd of 500 Conservative activists in Manchester cheered.
Asked by moderator Iain Dale for his reaction, Mr Hunt praised Mr Robbins for his hard work but added: “I was a loyal cabinet minister. I think it is important that the prime minister has a loyal foreign secretary, but I wasn’t a believer in the backstop and I didn’t believe it would get through parliament.”
That last comment was a dig at his rival for the leadership, Boris Johnson, who had appeared at the hustings before the news broke. Mr Johnson quit as foreign secretary after Theresa May, prime minister, negotiated a withdrawal deal that then failed to get through parliament.
Both Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson have said they would leave the EU without a deal if Brussels refused to renegotiate before the deadline of October 31.
Mr Johnson drew laughs from the crowd with his usual jokes and colourful language. His commitment to deliver Brexit on October 31 was also riotously popular.
But Mr Hunt answered questions in greater detail and set out new policies.
He said that he would deliver on the 2017 Conservative manifesto pledge to allow new grammar schools to be built. The idea of schools that select on ability is controversial, and the policy was shelved under Mrs May. Asked by a grammar school teacher about his commitment to open more of the selective schools, Mr Hunt said he was “happy to confirm it”.
He also said he could cut the 6.3 per cent interest paid on tuition fees. Students pay above inflation. “I think it is a scandal that we charge people 6 per cent on their tuition fees. We can’t justify it on the doorstep and it is discrediting the entire system. We need to tackle those issues.”
Mr Dale said he had received a question from Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, who asked both men to commit to the Northern Powerhouse plan to boost the economy of Northern England. Both said they would do more to narrow the north/south divide and build the proposed £39bn Northern Powerhouse fast rail line to link the big cities of the north.
Mr Johnson, a former mayor of London, said he would hand more powers and money to city regions. Mr Burnham should be able to run Greater Manchester transport but only if he took responsibility for fare revenue and raised more money locally, he said.
Additional reporting by Robert Wright in London