By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - The contest to replace Theresa May as British prime minister hotted up on Saturday with seven candidates now throwing their hat into the ring, saying they would succeed where she failed by taking a deeply-divided Britain out of the European Union.
May announced on Friday she was quitting over her failure to deliver Brexit, raising the prospect of a new leader who could seek a more divisive split with the EU and lead to confrontation with the bloc or a possible parliamentary election.
British health minister Matt Hancock, ex-Brexit minister Dominic Raab and former House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom on Saturday joined an increasingly crowded field to replace May.
Former foreign minister Boris Johnson, current foreign minister Jeremy Hunt, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart and former work and pensions minister Esther McVey had already announced they would stand.
About a dozen contenders in total are thought to be considering a tilt at the leadership with newspapers reporting that environment minister Michael Gove was expected to announce his candidacy on Sunday.
May failed three times to get a divorce deal she agreed with the EU through parliament because of deep, long-term divisions in the Conservative Party over Europe. It meant the original Brexit date of March 29 has been extended until Oct. 31 to see if any compromise could be reached.
All those standing say they could build a consensus or amend May's deal, although the EU has said it would not renegotiate the treaty.
"We have to propose a deal that will get through this parliament," Hancock told BBC radio. "We have to be brutally honest about the trade-offs."
Raab, a leading figure among pro-Brexit Conservatives, said he did not want to exit without a deal, but would do so if the EU refused to budge, a stance echoed by Leadsom, who quit the government on Wednesday over May's deal.
"To succeed in a negotiation you have to be prepared to walk away," Leadsom, who made it to the last two in the 2016 contest to replace David Cameron as prime minister following the EU referendum, told the Sunday Times newspaper.
Brexit is set to dominate the contest which will begin in the week of June 10 when Conservative lawmakers begin to whittle down the field before party members, about 160,000 according to the Sunday Telegraph, choose the winner from the final two candidates.
JOHNSON THE FAVORITE
Surveys have suggested that the members are overwhelmingly pro-Brexit and in favor of leaving the EU without a deal.
Boris Johnson is the clear favorite with bookmakers and he has also said Britain should be prepared to exit the bloc without any deal if no acceptable agreement could be reached.
"We will leave the EU on October 31, deal or no deal," Johnson told an economic conference in Switzerland on Friday.
The party's divisions over the EU has led to the demise of its last four prime ministers - May, Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher - and there is little indication these schisms will be healed soon.
"There are huge tensions in this race which are that people will be encouraged to promise things they can't deliver, of those probably the most dramatic are people who are going to be encouraged to promise a no-deal Brexit," one of the contenders, Rory Stewart, told BBC radio.
While parliament repeatedly rejected May's accord, lawmakers have also previously voted against leaving without any deal. Stewart said he could not serve in a Johnson government that was prepared to accept a no-deal Brexit.
"I think it would be a huge mistake, damaging, unnecessary and I think also dishonest," Stewart said.
With no majority in parliament, the Conservatives only govern with the support of the small Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, a factor that has constantly weakened May's hand.
The opposition Labour Party, which called for an immediate election after May's announcement, said it would seek a vote of no confidence in the government if it looked like it might pass, while it has also not ruled out backing a second referendum.
"Faced with (a no deal) situation, I think there may well be a majority in the House of Commons willing to bring about some form of public vote and that could include a general election," Labour finance spokesman John McDonnell told BBC radio.
Both the Conservatives and Labour are expected to fare badly in the European Parliament elections when the results are published on Sunday, while both the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats were seen doing well.
Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson said the party's equivocal stance on the issue was to blame and it now needed to urgently back a second vote.
"For our party's sake, but most of all for Britain’s sake, Labour needs to find some backbone on Brexit, find our voice - and do it fast," he wrote on his website.
(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Alexander Smith and G Crosse)