Boris Johnson pitches for UK leadership with pledge of Brexit on Oct 31

Mr Boris Johnson's pitch is simple: He is easily his party's best-known figure, a political star known to the public by his first name.
Mr Boris Johnson's pitch is simple: He is easily his party's best-known figure, a political star known to the public by his first name.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Mr Boris Johnson will launch his campaign to become Britain's prime minister on Wednesday morning (June 12) with a promise to get the country out of the European Union on Oct 31, come what may.

The former foreign secretary is the favourite of the 10 candidates to succeed Mrs Theresa May, and the one who has by far said the least about how he would tackle the biggest problem that the nation faces. His launch event will be the first time he has faced public questioning in months.

That silence has allowed him to pick up the support of both members of Parliament who want to leave the EU with a deal and those who are content to - or would even prefer to - leave without one.

His stated strategy is to talk tough with the Europeans, threatening to withhold the £39 billion (S$67.7 billion) settlement that the UK has agreed it owes the bloc, unless he's granted concessions.

"We must leave the EU on Oct 31," Mr Johnson will say, according to his office. "We simply will not get a result if we give the slightest hint that we want to go on kicking the can down the road with yet more delay. Delay means defeat."

POLITICAL STAR

Mr Johnson's pitch is simple: He is easily the party's best-known figure, a political star known to the public by his first name. At a time when MPs fear a general election, he will tell them that he knows how to win it.

That argument was helped Tuesday evening by a ComRes poll for the Telegraph newspaper - where Mr Johnson is a star columnist - that found voters saying they were more likely to vote Conservative if he were leader.

 
 

Mr Johnson's critics are equally straightforward. He was sacked as a journalist for making up a quote, and as a Conservative spokesman for lying about an affair.

His role as a cheerleader for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, though quite possibly decisive, also alienated him from many liberal voters. Conservative polling expert Rob Hayward last week told journalists that most of the public had made up their minds about Mr Johnson, and many don't trust him.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid, also launching his campaign on Wednesday, will argue that Mr Johnson is the wrong choice.

"I believe now more than ever that this is a moment for a new kind of leadership and a new kind of leader," he'll say, according to his office. "A leader is not just for Christmas, or just for Brexit. So we can't risk going with someone who feels like the short-term, comfort-zone choice. We need tomorrow's leader, today."

'TOO PERSONAL' BREXIT

Meanwhile rival candidate Rory Stewart, at his own launch on Tuesday evening, took aim at the front runner.

"I don't want to make this too personal," he said, without naming Mr Johnson, "but do you really feel that this is the person that you want engaging with the detail of the future of your health and education system? Is this the person that you want writing the instruction to the nuclear submarines? That you want embodying your nation on the world stage and guiding it through the most difficult choice that Britain has faced for 50 years?"

Whoever succeeds Mrs May could find their freedom of action curtailed by the same forces she faced. The opposition Labour Party will try once again to seize control of the Parliamentary agenda on Wednesday, part of an effort to stop the next prime minister from taking the country out of the EU without a deal.

One candidate, Mr Dominic Raab, has floated the idea of stopping Parliament from sitting, so that members wouldn't be able to block this. Others are arguing that Parliament doesn't have the power to force a prime minister to change course.

 
 

If Labour wins the Wednesday afternoon vote, at least an hour will be set aside on June 25 for further debate on a motion to be selected by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, who has repeatedly worked with MPs trying to soften Brexit.

As with similar moves at the start of the year, that could be used to set in motion a process that takes control of the agenda from the government.

At that point, the identity of the next prime minister won't be known, but the Conservative Party will have narrowed down its list of candidates considerably, and the direction that the party is moving in may be clearer.

"The debate on Brexit in the Tory leadership contest has descended into the disturbing, the ludicrous and the reckless," Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said in an e-mailed statement. "MPs cannot be bystanders while the next Tory prime minister tries to crash the UK out of the European Union without a deal and without the consent of the British people."

The motion will pass only if sufficient Conservatives rebel and support it. One, former minister Oliver Letwin, has already put his name to it.

Even one leadership candidate, Mr Stewart, briefly looked like he might back it, telling his launch event that "my instinct is I would be wholly supportive". He quickly moved away from that position, however, saying he'd read the motion and wouldn't support it.