Theresa May has urged her successor to seek a consensus over Brexit as Brussels stressed there could be “no renegotiation” of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned the Tories face “destruction” if a new leader calls a general election before delivering Brexit.
The Foreign Secretary, who is among 10 MPs vying to be the next prime minister, said a failure to solve Brexit could ruin the end of the Conservatives and warned the “biggest risk” to delivering on the referendum was a general election.
His comments came as Housing Minister Kit Malthouse became the latest person to enter the race to succeed Theresa May, telling the Press Association there was a “hunger for someone new”.
Mrs May, attending a summit in Brussels, said the European election results in which the Tories took just 9% of the vote were “deeply disappointing”.
“I think what it shows is the importance of actually delivering on Brexit. I think the best way to do that is with a deal,” she said.
“But it will be for my successor and for Parliament to find a way forward and get a consensus.”
The comments are aimed at Brexiteers in the race to replace her who have said they are prepared to back a no-deal departure from the EU, something which could lead to a clash with Parliament.
Mr Hunt warned rivals that calling a general election – potentially to win a mandate for a no-deal Brexit – could be a disaster for the Tories, insisting that the UK’s exit from the EU must be completed before going to the polls.
Setting out the scale of the challenge facing the Tories, Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We must not go back to the electorate asking for their mandate until we’ve delivered what we promised we would do last time, which is to deliver Brexit, it would be absolutely catastrophic for us as a party.”
Mr Hunt, who campaigned for Remain in the 2016 referendum but has adopted an increasingly Eurosceptic tone, said he had “always believed we should keep no deal on the table” as it is the “best way of getting a good deal”.
Mr Hunt said it was important to “find a different way to get a deal”, adding “we have to have a go at this” as he proposed forming a new wider negotiating team to change the Withdrawal Agreement.
Leadership rival Dominic Raab also said he was focused on “getting a fairer deal from the EU as we leave”.
But outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stressed “there will be no renegotiation”.
The agreement between the EU and Mrs May to delay Brexit until October 31 included a commitment not to seek a renegotiation of the deal.
A team of DUP, ERG, Scottish & Welsh representatives would be Foreign Sec @Jeremy_Hunt's plan for renegotiating a Brexit deal with the EU. "It would include people who say if we can't get the right deal we should leave with no-deal" #r4todayhttps://t.co/pUfzHiRulApic.twitter.com/H0PeP8L867
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) May 28, 2019
Meanwhile, Mr Malthouse, who brought together Tory Leavers and Remainers behind a compromise Brexit plan earlier this year, said he had a “good number” of MPs backing his bid.
“We’ve got to find a way to unite the Conservative Party to deliver a Brexit plan so we can move onto a really compelling, attractive domestic agenda that might command victory at a general election,” Mr Malthouse told the Press Association.
“One of the reasons that I’m running is that I’m the only person who has actually done that.”
Mr Malthouse served as a deputy mayor of London under leadership campaign frontrunner Boris Johnson.
Other candidates for the top job also started to offer a flavour of their policies should they win a ballot of Conservative Party members later this year.
Michael Gove is prepared to offer free UK citizenship to three million nationals who resided in the UK at the time of the June 2016 referendum.
Matt Hancock wrote in the Daily Mail about “driving up the living wage and cutting taxes”.
The Health Secretary wrote: “Instead of yet another battle over Brexit, the next election should be about the economy, the territory on which the Conservative Party wins.”
In response to Mr Hunt’s warning that a no-deal Brexit election would be “political suicide”, leadership rival Esther McVey responded: “Political suicide actually lies in not having a clean break from the EU and not leaving on October 31.”
Other Tory MPs vying for the top job include Cabinet colleagues Sajid Javid Andrea Leadsom and Rory Stewart, who continued his series of campaign walkabouts.
Speculation continued to surround the prospect of other contenders emerging, including Brexit Minister James Cleverly, Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt and former 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady.
Meanwhile, Downing Street indicated that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which led to Mrs Leadsom’s resignation and the Cabinet revolt that hastened Mrs May’s departure, might never be published.