Boris Johnson bids for UK leadership with pledge of Oct. 31 Brexit

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Image: REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Boris Johnson kicked off his campaign to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday with a pledge to lead Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31 and a warning to his divided Conservative Party that "delay means defeat".

Johnson, favourite for the top job nearly three years since he led the official campaign to leave the EU, praised the strength of the British economy, promised to deliver Brexit by Oct. 31 and tackle despair across the country.

"After three years and two missed deadlines, we must leave the EU on October 31," he said as a heckler yelled "Bollocks to Boris" from outside the Royal Academy of Engineering just off The Mall in central London.

"I am not aiming for a no-deal outcome," said Johnson, a 54-year-old former foreign minister and London mayor.

"I don't think that we will end up with any such thing, but it is only responsible to prepare vigorously and seriously for no-deal.

Indeed it is astonishing that anyone could suggest dispensing with that vital tool in the negotiation."

Johnson, whose unconventional style has helped him shrug off a series of scandals in the past, has won over many in his party by arguing that only he can rescue the Conservatives by delivering Brexit.

For many, the contest for prime minister is his to lose - he has the most declared Conservative supporters in parliament and is widely popular among the party's members, the people who will ultimately choose May's successor.

When asked if he could be trusted, Johnson said he could.

Asked if he had ever broken the law, he spoke about driving above the speed limit. When asked about whether he had dabbled in illegal drugs, he dodged the question.

"Have I ever done anything illegal?...I cannot swear that I've always observed a top speed in this country of 70 miles an hour."

On drugs, he said: "I think what most people want us to focus on in this campaign, if I may say so, is what we can do for them and what our plans are for this great country of ours."

"PLASTER COMES OFF THE CEILING"

As in the 2016 referendum on EU membership, Johnson's message is clear: any more Brexit delays and the Conservative Party risks opening the door to a government led by opposition Labour leader and veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn.

"We will simply not get a result if we give the impression that we want to go on kicking the can down the road and yet more delay," Johnson said. "Delay means defeat, delay means ruin."

"Around the country there is a feeling of disillusion and even despair at our ability to get things done. The longer it goes on, the worse the risk that there will be serious contamination and a real loss of confidence."

The United Kingdom could be heading towards a constitutional crisis over Brexit as many of the candidates vying to succeed May are prepared to leave the EU on Oct. 31 without a deal but parliament has indicated it will try to thwart such a scenario.

The Conservatives suffered their worst result in centuries in a European Parliament election last month.

Opinion polls indicate a snap election would produce a hung parliament, with neither the Conservatives nor Labour winning a majority.

Just minutes before Johnson spoke, finance minister Philip Hammond said he didn't think Johnson, if he won the top job, would be able to take Britain out of the EU by Oct. 31.

The EU has refused to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement reached with May last November, and Ireland has indicated it is not willing to change the Irish border "backstop" that upset the Northern Irish party which props up May's minority government.

Johnson has been criticised for hiding "in a bunker" by some of his opponents, but the strategy to reduce the media exposure of a man who has been prone to gaffes and scandals seems to be working, with his support so far holding up.

Johnson made his name as an EU-bashing journalist in Brussels before entering politics He also raised his profile through a series of appearances on a television comedy show.

He upset some Europeans before Britain's Brexit referendum by comparing the EU's goals with those of Hitler and Napoleon.

"Occasionally some plaster comes off the ceiling as a result of a phrase I may have used, or indeed as a result of how that phrase has been wrenched out of context and interpreted by those who wish for reasons of their own to caricature my views," he said.

"But I think it is vital that we as politicians remember that one of the reasons why the public feels alienated now from us all as a breed - politicians - is because too often they feel we are muffling and veiling our language, not speaking as we find, covering everything up in bureaucratic platitudes, when what they want to hear is what we genuinely think."

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