Both Tory leadership contenders have been accused of making a dramatic pivot towards a no-deal Brexit after they ruled out accepting a potential key concession from Brussels.
Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson said they would refuse to take Britain out of the EU with a tweaked version of the Irish border backstop that included a time limit built into it.
The move has inflamed the fury of a Tory MP who called it a “very dangerous step” and a Irish MEP who warned it would lead to a “crash out exit”.
The backstop is an insurance policy to prevent a hard border reforming and was the most controversial element of Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.
Brussels has insisted its inclusion is non-negotiable.
Some Tory Brexiteers said they could support the policy if there was a time limit put it, to ensure the UK does not remain trapped in it indefinitely.
But Mr Johnson signalled he would not accept an altered version which would set a time limit on how long the UK would have to follow some EU import standards and rules.
“No to time limits or unilateral escape hatches or all these elaborate devices, glosses, codicils and so on that you could apply to the backstop,” he told a debate hosted by The Sun on Monday.
Mr Hunt agreed, adding: “The backstop, as it is, is dead … I don’t think tweaking it with a time limit will do the trick, we’ve got to find a new way.”
Some politicians said the commitment from both candidates, one of whom will be coronated prime minister next Tuesday, was tantamount to committing to no-deal.
Simon Hoare, the Tory MP who chairs the Northern Ireland affairs committee in parliament and is a Hunt supporter, called the comments “worrying and depressing”.
“Both of the candidates yesterday moved the goalposts,” he told Sky News, adding: “All I can hope is that this is prose caught up in the heat of an election campaign.
“It is not good for the union – this is a very dangerous step that both men seem to have taken.”
Martina Anderson, an MEP for Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, said it amounted to a “crash out exit”.
“No backstop = no withdrawal agreement = no future relationship,” she tweeted.
David Bannerman, a Brexiteer former Conservative MEP who quit in May, also wrote the current Brexit deal was “dead” and it was “time for” a no-deal divorce.
Despite the pivot towards leaving the EU on 31 October with no withdrawal agreement, some MPs are manoeuvring to try to block such a scenario.
Sky News revealed earlier this month that thirty Tory MPs led by Chancellor Philip Hammond are plotting to stop a no-deal Brexit.
The informal group of rebels, mostly serving ministers, have held numerous meetings recently about how to prevent it happening.