Brexit: Jeremy Hunt 'could withhold part of £39bn divorce bill'

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Prime ministerial hopeful Jeremy Hunt has said he would consider withholding some of the UK’s £39bn EU “divorce bill” in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The foreign secretary told the Sunday Times he would not hand over “a penny more than is legally required of us”.

Fellow leadership contender Boris Johnson previously unveiled similar plans to hold back money from Brussels.

Mr Hunt’s proposals come as details emerged of the rivals forming new Brexit negotiating teams.

‘No blank cheque’

Earlier this month, Mr Johnson told the Sunday Times he would “retain” the financial settlement demanded by the EU until he had struck a deal more favourable than Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, which has been rejected three times by MPs.

On Sunday Mr Hunt told the paper: “As a businessman I always paid my bills. That being said, if we leave without a deal I will not hand over a penny more than is legally required of us.”

“Anyone who thinks I am going to write a blank cheque to the European Union is sorely mistaken,” he added.

The Institute for Government (IFG) think tank previously said refusing to pay could lead the EU to launch a legal challenge.

But a House of Lords report into Brexit and the EU budget stated: “While the legal advice we have received differed, the stronger argument suggests that the UK will not be strictly obliged, as a matter of law, to render any payments at all after leaving.”

BBC political correspondent Iain Watson says Mr Hunt knows that his voting to remain in the EU has not endeared him to some sections of the Conservative membership and is attempting to reassure them of his commitment to Brexit.

May’s negotiator to quit

Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson are taking part in 15 hustings across the country as Conservative Party members decide on their party’s next leader – and the next UK prime minister.

The 160,000 members will begin voting next week and the winner is expected to be announced on 23 July.

Mr Hunt’s campaign team said he was in talks with the former Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, who he hopes could help to draw up plans for a deal similar to Canada’s free trade agreement with the EU.

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Stephen Harper was prime minister of Canada for nearly 10 years before losing an election to Justin Trudeau in 2015

Mr Johnson, who has already recruited Health Secretary Matt Hancock into his team, is thought to be drafting in Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg as negotiators.

Meanwhile, chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins will resign from his role this summer.

The civil servant masterminded Theresa May’s deal.

He is expected to step down shortly after the new prime minister enters office at the end of July.

Mr Robbins is the latest in a wave of civil servants to choose to quit rather than negotiate a new deal by within 100 days of either Mr Hunt or Mr Johnson becoming prime minister, to deliver Brexit by the delayed deadline of 31 October.