LONDON • Mr Boris Johnson kicked off his campaign to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday 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".
Mr Johnson, the favourite for the top job nearly three years after he led the official campaign to leave the EU, praised the strength of the British economy and 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 Oct 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 Mr 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.
"I'm not going to pretend to you now that everything will be plain sailing," he said. "There will be difficulties and there may be bumps in the road."
But his team will "hit the ground running" and get the new deal the country needs from Brussels, he said.
Mr 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 Mrs May's successor.
Taking questions from the media after his speech, the Tory favourite brushed aside criticism of his record of gaffes as foreign secretary and insisted the country can trust him to be prime minister.
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.
As in the 2016 referendum on EU membership, Mr 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," Mr 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 Mrs 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.
Just minutes before Mr Johnson spoke, Finance Minister Philip Hammond said he did not think Mr 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 Mrs 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 Mrs May's minority government.
Mr 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.