Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper has become the 12th Tory MP to enter the race to become the next prime minister – telling Sky News that many of his rivals have already “failed” on Brexit.
In an attack on leadership rivals who promise an easy solution on Brexit, Mr Harper told Sky News: “I don’t think we should take the people who were responsible for where we got to now and assume they’ve got the solutions for how we move forward.
“They’ve been sat round the cabinet table over the last three years and…you can’t be a bystander if you’re in the cabinet.”
Attacking “glib soundbites” and “unachievable promises” on Brexit from his rivals, Mr Harper said: “If they now come up with a great plan, they’ve got to explain to everybody where that plan has been over the last three years and why they were part of a government that put a plan in front of parliament that was defeated with the largest majority in the history of British governments.”
Mr Harper is competing for the Tory leadership against Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Home Secretary Sajid Javid and International Development Secretary Rory Stewart.
Former cabinet ministers Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey – as well as current housing minister Kit Malthouse and Brexit minister James Cleverly – round off the list of candidates.
The Forest of Dean MP also warned that if he becomes Tory leader he will recruit a fresh crop of cabinet ministers to thrash out a new deal.
He pledged to “put the best people on the pitch”, adding: “If I’m prime minister I will look across the parliamentary party at the talent – one of the fantastic things I learnt when I was chief whip when I looked at the talent we had in the party we have got a fantastically talented parliamentary party.”
Mr Harper served in a number of roles in David Cameron’s government but has remained outside government during Theresa May’s tenure in 10 Downing Street.
In the interview with Sky News, Mr Harper admitted his recent absence from the cabinet means he is less well-known than some of the 11 other leadership candidates, as he labelled himself as the “underdog” in the contest.
But, the former accountant claimed his position outside government during the Brexit process puts him “apart” from those cabinet ministers and ex-cabinet ministers he is competing against.
On the challenge facing the next prime minister in delivering Brexit, he added: “Now I’ve got experience in government – but not as part of this government – and I think the skills that I learnt both as a minister for six years… mean that I’ve got a plan for delivering Brexit.”
The 49-year-old put himself at odds with those fellow candidates who have pledged to take the UK out the EU by 31 October with or without a divorce deal.
Mr Harper claimed leaving the EU with a deal on 31 October is not a “credible promise”, describing how a new Tory leader will need to find agreement within their party and parliament for a divorce agreement, which he suggested could include persuading the EU to “come back to the negotiating table”.
Instead, he is calling for a “short, focused extension” to the Article 50 negotiating period, adding: “I’d be interested to see those saying leave with a deal by 31st October how they propose to do it but I don’t think it’s deliverable.”
Mr Harper backed Remain during the 2016 EU referendum but is not ruling out a no-deal Brexit.
He voted twice against Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement before backing it in a third House of Commons vote, as he put aside his doubts about the deal in a bid to ensure the UK would leave the EU and to prevent a deeper Tory split.
He said: “I want to leave with a deal, but I do think if we can’t get a deal that goes through parliament we need to leave without a withdrawal agreement.
“But I think we’ll only persuade a majority in parliament of that if they think we’ve made a serious real attempt to get a better changed deal.”
Away from Brexit, Mr Harper highlighted priorities such as reducing taxes, spending more money on education and reforming apprenticeships and further education.
He also said he did not regret the deployment of controversial “Go Home” vans in London, targeting illegal migrants, during his time as immigration minister under Mr Cameron.
“The message that if you’re in Britain illegally you shouldn’t be here I think is perfectly reasonable message and a message which actually most British people agree with,” he said.
“What we were doing at that time was we were piloting a number of different methods to encourage people who weren’t here legally to leave the country in a way that didn’t spend huge amounts of taxpayers’ money.
“What we found was that wasn’t a very effective tool and that’s why we didn’t continue it after that initial pilot and we set all that out at the time.”