Tory leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt has warned that his party will be committing “political suicide” if it tries to push through a no-deal Brexit.
The foreign secretary is one of 10 people seeking to replace Theresa May.
Michael Gove has begun his pitch by pledging to allow EU nationals in the UK at the time of the referendum to apply for citizenship free of charge.
The Brexit-supporting environment secretary will make an “open and generous” offer, sources said.
A Tory rival, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, is promising a “listening exercise” on Brexit.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Mr Hunt says the Conservatives would be “annihilated” and “face extinction” if there was a general election before Brexit happened.
He says he has always believed that no-deal is better than no Brexit but warns that a prime minister advocating no-deal would risk losing a confidence vote in Parliament – so committing to a general election.
“Trying to deliver no deal through a general election is not a solution; it is political suicide,” he writes.
It would “probably put Jeremy Corbyn in No 10 by Christmas.”
He pledged to negotiate a new agreement with the EU if he wins the leadership contest.
In response, one of Mr Hunt’s rivals, Esther McVey, said “political suicide” would be not leaving the EU at the end of October, as planned.
Fellow leadership-hopeful Mr Gove wants to give as many as three million people from elsewhere in the EU who live in the UK an easier path to citizenship after Brexit.
As part of the plan he would remove the requirement of EU citizens to provide proof of their right to be here – getting rid of the so-called ‘settled status’ scheme.
A source close to the environment secretary said: “This is simply the right thing to do – honouring the promise of Vote Leave that EU nationals studying, working and living in the UK were welcome to stay.”
On Monday Housing minister Kit Malthouse became the latest Tory MP to join the race to become party leader.
Writing in the Sun newspaper, Mr Malthouse said the campaign “cannot be about the same old faces” and described himself as “the new face, with fresh new ideas”.
“We need to end the Brexit paralysis, and while I voted to leave the EU, I know that without unity across the UK, we cannot get a deal over the line.”
Meanwhile, the Sun reports that rival contender Health Secretary Matt Hancock has written to ITV, BBC, Sky and Channel 4 to ask them to broadcast a live debate between those vying for the Tory leadership
The official leadership race gets under way in early June, after Theresa May stands down – but jostling between candidates has begun. The winner, expected to be named by late July, will also become prime minister.
Who is running for the Tory leadership?
The declared candidates to replace Mrs May are:
- Home Secretary Sajid Javid
- Health Secretary Matt Hancock
- Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt
- Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson
- Former Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom
- Former Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey
- Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab
- Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt
- Environment Secretary Michael Gove
- Housing minister Kit Malthouse