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Race for No.10 touches down in Belfast as Johnson and Hunt meet with local Tories

Jeremy Hunt in London
Jeremy Hunt in London
Boris Johnson during a visit to a Garden centre in Kent yesterday
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Tory leadership contenders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are due to fly into Belfast today for a hustings event.

They are expected to separately address, and take questions from, Conservative Party members here. They may also visit Stormont for talks with local politicians.

Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt are auditioning in front of Tory grassroots at 16 hustings events across the UK.

Mr Johnson is the 1/8 bookies favourite to succeed Theresa May as the next Prime Minister, with Mr Hunt the 5/1 outsider.

The DUP's 10 MPs holding the balance of power at Westminster, combined with the controversy surrounding the backstop, means both men must pay attention to Northern Ireland in their campaigns.

Asked about the Tory leadership rivals' visit to Belfast, a DUP spokesman said his party had "a good relationship" with both candidates.

"The leadership election is a matter for the Conservative membership," he said.

"We will not be getting involved in the leadership campaign, but look forward to working with the winner to help deliver on the referendum result and the stability of the UK.

"Our confidence and supply agreement is with the party rather than the leader."

Mr Hunt yesterday said German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told him she is willing to look at a fresh Brexit deal package put forward by a new Prime Minister.

The Foreign Secretary told Sky News: "I've had a conversation with Angela Merkel and... (she said), 'Of course we will look at any proposals made by a new UK prime minister', because she wants to solve this problem.

"And providing we're sensible, and I think the approach that I've laid out is a sensible approach and a fair approach, and I think that it's in Germany's interests as well."

Mr Hunt said that if he became Prime Minister he would decide at the end of September whether to continue Brexit talks with Brussels or go for a no-deal withdrawal option.

The Foreign Secretary also said he would cancel August leave for Whitehall officials involved in Brexit preparations if necessary.

He stated that he would launch an all-out diplomatic effort to cut a new deal with the EU if he beats Mr Johnson in the leadership race.

Mr Hunt said he would make a decision on Brexit talks by September 30, ahead of the withdrawal date of October 31.

"It is important that the EU knows that we will do what it takes to make a success of a no-deal Brexit," he said.

"We won't blink as a country. That no-deal Brexit is not going to be an opportunity for them to successfully turn the screws on our country. I will start engaging with the EU straight away, throughout August.

"Then, when we have published our plan for a deal we think we can get through Parliament by the end of August, we will start formal negotiations in September."

Mr Hunt added: "There is a hard deadline in what I have said, by the end of September, I, as Prime Minister, will make a judgment as to whether there is a realistic prospect of a deal that can get through Parliament in the short-term.

"And, if my judgment is that is not the case, talks will stop and we will put our heads down and focus on no-deal."

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson has been told by a heckler it is "a shame your brother's not running" for the Tory leadership during a visit to a Kent garden centre.

His brother Jo Johnson, who is also a Tory MP, voted Remain. An unfazed Mr Johnson only said "thank you very much". He was mostly met with support from shoppers, with many posing for photos or shaking hands with him.

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