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U.K. prime ministerial candidates square off on Brexit, ambassador's Trump comments

Brexit details and the diplomatic row involving comments made by the British ambassador to the U.S. about President Donald Trump in leaked cables were among the main issues discussed during a televised debate between the two contenders to replace U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.

Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt meet for lone debate in Conservative leadership contest

This side-by-side image from ITV shows British prime ministerial candidates Boris Johnson, left, and Jeremy Hunt during their only head-to-head debate for leadership of the Conservative Party. (ITV)

Brexit details and the diplomatic row involving comments made by the British ambassador to the U.S. about the Trump administration in leaked cables were among the main issues discussed during a televised debate between the two contenders to replace U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.

Boris Johnson, the favourite to become the next Conservative leader and prime minister, refused to say on Tuesday whether he would resign if the United Kingdom does not leave the European Union on Oct. 31, the current deadline for Brexit.

In the early stages of the only scheduled head-to-head television debate with his rival Jeremy Hunt, Johnson refused to answer a question from Hunt whether he would quit if he failed to deliver his plan to deliver Brexit by the end of October.

"I think it is very, very important not to envisage any circumstances in which we would fail to come out of the EU on Oct. 31. I don't want to hold out to the EU the prospect that they might encourage my resignation by refusing to agree a deal," Johnson said on the debate on ITV television.

Conservative Party members are submitting their postal ballots to appoint the new leader of their party, and the leader of the country, who will be announced on July 23.

Johnson also refused to rule out suspending Parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit. Earlier in the day, British lawmakers approved the first of several measures that could make it more difficult for the next prime minister to force through a no-deal Brexit by suspending Parliament — although the moves stopped short of an outright block.

Asked if he would prorogue parliament, Johnson said: "I'm not going to take anything off the table. I think it would be absolutely bizarre at this stage in the negotiations for the U.K., yet again, to be weakening its own position."

Hunt, who said he wouldn't shut down Parliament, called out Johnson over his past comments regarding a no-deal Brexit scenario.

"You said we would leave with no deal, with no tariffs. That was wrong," the current foreign secretary said. "You also said, Boris, that it would be 'a million-to-one' that we would leave with no deal. Well, I have to tell you that is totally unrealistic, and if you say that, what you're actually telling businesses ... is that they don't need to prepare for no-deal. And that is very dangerous.

"I think we have to be responsible and tell people they do need to prepare, because the chances of no-deal are actually much, much higher than what you're talking about."

Hunt would keep ambassador, Johnson won't say

May, the outgoing prime minister, has given her full support to Washington envoy Kim Darroch after he described Trump's administration as "dysfunctional" and "inept" in memos that were leaked to a British newspaper on Sunday.

Both Johnson and Hunt touted the importance of the relationship between Britain and the United States, but Hunt reaffirmed his position that "who chooses our ambassadors is a matter for the United Kingdom government and the United Kingdom prime minister."

"If I am our next prime minister, the ambassador in Washington stays because it's our decision."

Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the U.S. whose comments criticizing the Trump administration were leaked, was a topic of discussion during Johnson and Hunt's debate. (Larry French/Getty Images for Capitol File Magazine)

Hunt previously challenged Trump over his criticisms of Darroch, tweeting: "[Trump] friends speak frankly so I will: these comments are disrespectful and wrong to our Prime Minister and my country. Your diplomats give their private opinions to [Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] and so do ours!"

Asked if he would keep Darroch in his job if he becomes prime minister, Johnson said: "I'm not going to be so presumptuous as to think I'm going to be in a position [to do that]."

Johnson then said Trump had been dragged into a British political row. "I don't think it was necessarily the right thing for him to do," he said. "But let's face it, our relationship with the U.S. is of fantastic importance.

"I have a very good relationship with the White House. It's very important that we should have a close friendship, a close partnership with the United States."

Johnson hinted earlier that he shared Trump's view of May's handling of Brexit, which Trump called "foolish" in a series of tweets lashing out at her on Tuesday.

Debate impact may be limited

Hunt has expressed frustration at the reluctance of Johnson to take part in debates. He hopes Tuesday's showdown offers a chance to turn the contest around, though it may be too late. 

Ballot papers have already gone out to the party's estimated 180,000 members, and many people will already have voted. That means the impact may be limited even if Hunt's performance is strong.

Polling suggests Johnson, a former London mayor, is far ahead in support among Conservative Party members.

Hunt said on Monday if he becomes prime minister, he would seek to boost poor national productivity by supporting entrepreneurs in a bid to emulate the business culture of the United States. He pledged to "turbo-charge" the economy by cutting taxes on businesses, and boosting investment in infrastructure and education.

"We can only afford to fund our vital public services if we grow the size of the pot and my plan will do exactly that," Hunt, himself an entrepreneur, said in a statement setting out plans for the economy.

"We have to remember that the Conservative Party should back the wealth creators and entrepreneurs who take risks to create jobs."

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press

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