Justice Secretary Michael Gove argued Friday that he should be Britain’s next leader because he is passionately committed to leaving the European Union - but said he would not trigger EU exit talks this year if he becomes prime minister.
His comments are likely to upset and annoy EU leaders, who have put strong pressure on Britain to start talks soon on leaving the 28-nation bloc.
Gove, one of the leaders of the victorious campaign to quit the bloc, is among five Conservatives running to replace Prime Minister David Cameron, who resigned after losing last week’s referendum on EU membership.
Uncertainty about the country’s future ties with the EU is weighing heavily on the British economy, prompting Treasury chief George Osborne to announce he was abandoning the government’s long-held goal of achieving a budget surplus by 2020.
In a speech Friday, Osborne said the referendum result is “likely to lead to a significant negative shock for the British economy.”
“We will continue to be tough on the deficit but we must be realistic about achieving a surplus by the end of this decade,” he said.
Osborne, a close ally of Cameron, has ruled himself out of the Conservative leadership race.
The Conservative government elected in 2010 has cut billions from public spending in a bid to eliminate a budget deficit that’s expected to hit 75.6 billion pounds ($100 billion) this year.
Osborne, who argued during the campaign that Britain should stay in the EU, had estimated that a vote to leave would hurt public finances to the tune of 30 billion pounds.
Gove’s leadership pitch
Spelling out his leadership pitch Friday, Gove said he should be the next prime minister because Britain needs to be led by someone who genuinely believes in leaving the EU.
Gove said he had been advocating a British exit, or Brexit, for 20 years. His leading rival for the Tory leadership, Home Secretary Theresa May, backed the “remain” campaign in last week’s referendum.
“The best person to lead Britain out of the European Union is someone who argued to get Britain out of the European Union,” Gove said. “This country voted for change, and I am going to deliver it.”
Also in the running are work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb, energy minister Andrea Leadsom and former Defence Secretary Liam Fox.
The result of the Conservative leadership race will be announced September 9 and the new leader will be the person to trigger Article 50 of the EU constitution - the formal mechanism that begins two years of exit talks.
But Gove said “I have no expectation that Article 50 would be triggered in this calendar year.” Gove also said he would “only trigger it after extensive preliminary talks” - but EU officials have said no such talks can be held until Article 50 is invoked.
German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told news website Spiegel Online that “what we can expect from London, and quickly, is a timetable for when exit negotiations with the EU are supposed to begin and how the British foresee these negotiations.”
But like other German and European officials this week, he didn’t define what he meant by “quickly.”
Gove also said he would not call an early election to seek a personal mandate for change. Britain’s next scheduled election is in 2020.
Gove’s surprise entry into the leadership race led former London Mayor Boris Johnson - his erstwhile ally in the EU “leave” campaign - to drop out on Thursday. Gove had been expected to back Johnson for the top job, and some Conservatives are furious at his betrayal.
Kenneth Clarke, a former justice secretary, said Friday that Gove “would all do us a favour if he were to stand down now and speed up the process” of finding a successor to Cameron, who announced his resignation after losing the referendum to keep Britain in the EU.
“One of the first priorities for a leader of a party and certainly a prime minister is that you should have the trust, as far as possible, of your colleagues,” Clarke told the BBC.
Casting himself as a reluctant candidate, Gove declared that “I did almost everything I could not to be a candidate for leadership of this party.”
But he said while Johnson had campaigned “with passion and brio,” he had concluded the flamboyant former mayor did not have what it took to be prime minister.
Several Cabinet ministers have announced their support for May, considered a tough politician capable of standing up to EU officials. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said “her track record shows that when Theresa arrives in Brussels, Europe’s bosses sit up and listen.”
Conservative lawmakers will whittle the field down to two leadership candidates before the final decision is made by all party members.
The result of last week’s referendum has rattled Britain’s economy and divided the country - 52 percent of voters wanted to leave the EU, while 48 percent voted to remain. Scots in particular are upset, since they voted by a strong majority to remain in the EU but their voices were drowned out by the much larger number of English who wanted to leave.