• Pensions secretary says ‘mind-boggling problems’ face Britain
  • Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox announcing bid Thursday

U.K. Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb set out his aim to reunite Conservatives divided by last week’s vote to leave the European Union as he became the first contender to formally declare he’s running to lead the party and the country.

Crabb, who stressed his working-class background in contrast to the privileged upbringing of outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron and rival contender Boris Johnson, said it was time for the party and the nation to reconcile before starting Brexit negotiations. He rejected suggestions there could be a second referendum and cautioned against holding an early general election in coming months.

“There can be no attempt to dilute it, to sidestep it and there will be no second referendum,” Crabb told reporters in London on Wednesday. While he said controlling immigration was a "red line" for Britain, “it’s essential we seek to achieve as close an economic relationship with the EU as we have today,” he said.

Crabb, a relative unknown on the political scene, will be joined by former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who said in an LBC radio interview he plans to formally announce his candidacy on Thursday morning.

Fox unsuccessfully ran for the Tory top job the last time it was contested in 2005, losing to Cameron. Seen as a Thatcherite and popular on the right wing of the party, he came out on the winning side of the Brexit referendum, having been a vocal advocate of “Leave.”

“We can’t allow the Conservative leadership campaign to be totally dominated by the issues in the referendum,” Fox told LBC. “There are many other issues that I care very passionately about. As a doctor, I care a great deal about what happens to our health care in this country. As a former defense secretary, I care about what happens to our armed forces. I think we need to paint an optimistic picture for our country. This is a special country and we should start feeling special about ourselves.”

Crabb, who backed the “Remain” campaign, used his bid announcement to praise Cameron as one of Britain’s “greatest” premiers and set out his vision for a “one-nation” Tory government. By playing on his roots and highlighting concerns over immigration, he sought to attract the many Conservative and opposition Labour voters who switched to the U.K. Independence Party.

Border Control

During the referendum campaign "what came out to us very, very clearly was what mattered most to people was getting control of our borders," Crabb said. "It’s going to be very hard reconciling that with the free access we have to the single market as we have at the moment."

He said he would convene an advisory board incorporating the leaders of Scotland and Wales along with the mayor of London and cabinet ministers to oversee the Brexit negotiations. A chief negotiator would be appointed to the cabinet to lead the talks if he becomes prime minister, Crabb said.

“We face a set of challenges the likes of which we haven’t seen before, a set of problems of almost mind-boggling complexity,” Crabb said. “There’s no manual waiting on anyone’s shelf waiting to be dusted down that offers instructions on the way forward. There is certainly no candidate in this race who can stand up today and provide all the answers.”

Calm Needed

Crabb was twice asked about the possibility of a quick general election after the new Conservative leader is announced on Sept. 9.

“The answer to the question of instability is not to create further uncertainty,” he said. “The country went through a tough general election a year ago, we’ve been through a really tough referendum” and Britain doesn’t need to be divided again, he said.

Nominations for the new Tory leader opened Wednesday and will close on Thursday. The candidates will be whittled down to two by lawmakers before being offered to party members in a national vote.

Johnson, the former London mayor, is expected to join Crabb and Fox in the race, along with Home Secretary Theresa May. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Education Secretary Nicky Morgan are also mulling bids. Energy Secretary Amber Rudd and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne have ruled themselves out of the contest.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE