The Tories face catastrophe if a new leader calls a general election before delivering Brexit, leadership contender Jeremy Hunt warned.
The Foreign Secretary, who is among 10 MPs vying to be the next prime minister, said a failure to solve Brexit could lead to 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”.
Setting out the scale of the challenge facing the Tories, Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m worried that if we don’t solve it (Brexit), we will face a political crisis that is far bigger actually than our legal relationship with the EU, it could lead to the destruction of our party system and the end of my own 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”.
“I’ve always thought that ultimately our economy would find a way to flourish even with the shock of no deal, but the biggest risk to Brexit now is … a general election.”
He added: “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 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.
“The only solution to the extremely difficult situation we’re in – and I don’t want to pretend that there’s an easy way through this – is to change the Withdrawal Agreement,” he added.
Downing Steet said it would not provide a “running commentary” on the contest triggered by Mrs May’s decision to stand down as Tory leader on June 7.
But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said that a promise not to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement was one of the conditions of Brexit being delayed until October 31.
“The legal text that was agreed (at the European Council) with the Prime Minister was that we would not be seeking to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. That was part of the process under which the extension was approved until October 31.”
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.”
The MP for North West Hampshire is the 10th hat in the ring after Mrs May called time on her Downing Street tenure, with Michael Gove, Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson among those to have already declared their candidacy.
The 52-year-old is a former deputy mayor of London, under Mr Johnson, and entered the Commons in 2015.
His name was given to the so-called Malthouse Compromise, a proposal drawn up by backbenchers from Leave and Remain wings of the Tory Party, which would have implemented Mrs May’s Brexit deal with the backstop replaced by alternative arrangements.
As the race to succeed Mrs May enters its first full week, candidates for the top job are starting to offer a flavour of their policies should they win a ballot of Conservative Party members later this year.
Mr 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, a number of national newspapers report, while Mr 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.
“It should be a clear choice between higher pay with the Tories or higher taxes with Corbyn’s Labour.”
Mr Hunt warned it would be “political suicide” to seek to deliver a no-deal Brexit through a general election but was immediately attacked by Tory leadership hopeful Esther McVey, who tweeted: “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 and Rory Stewart.
Former Cabinet ministers Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab are also in the race.
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.