Much-criticised Boris Johnson looks set to become British PM

Bumbling electoral campaign unlikely to prevent him from fending off party rival Hunt

In his campaign, Mr Boris Johnson has stuck firmly to the broadest generalities and pointedly refused to spell out what he will do should he move in to 10 Downing Street. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Mr Boris Johnson, the man most likely to become Britain's new prime minister early next week, ended his electoral campaign the same way he began it - by making false allegations against the European Union, accusing it of stifling Britain's economic growth.

Mr Johnson, frequently criticised for being economical with the truth, was duly lampooned by most of his country's media for his latest anti-EU claims. Yet there is little to suggest that a bumbling electoral campaign will prevent him from clinching the premiership.

The race to replace Prime Minister Theresa May, who announced her retirement last month after she failed to lead Britain out of the EU as her government had initially promised, is not a nationwide affair.

Instead, it is confined to only the estimated 150,000 members of Britain's ruling Conservatives. Since they are in power, their choice of a party leader automatically becomes the country's next premier.

Roughly a dozen candidates initially vied for this position, but only two survived to the last stage of the party ballots: Mr Johnson, a former mayor of London who subsequently enjoyed a short spell as Britain's foreign minister, and Mr Jeremy Hunt, the current Foreign Secretary.

Both men have pledged to take Britain out of the EU by the end of October. And both have vowed to do so even if Britain fails to conclude a new deal with the EU over the terms of this separation. Given that most Conservative Party members are passionately opposed to the EU, the candidates had no other choice but to make such promises.

The key differences between the contenders are that, while Mr Hunt was careful to carve for himself enough room for manoeuvre in his proposed future negotiations with the EU and was at pains to outline his policies on other domestic issues such as education, healthcare and taxation, Mr Johnson stuck firmly to the broadest generalities and pointedly refused to spell out what he will do should he move in to 10 Downing Street, the historic residence of British prime ministers, early next week.

Whenever faced with difficult questions such as the predicted fate of the British economy after his country leaves the EU, or what he would do to mend Britain's currently tense relations with United States President Donald Trump, Mr Johnson usually just confined himself to criticising the questioners for their "negativity" or uttered meaningless phrases such as "Have faith in Britain; let us muster our optimism".

Since he was always the leading candidate in the race and stood only to lose from being too specific about his future policy choices, the tactic of sticking to generalities made some sense. Still, his fuzzy electoral campaign merely confirmed a reputation he had already formed - that he is not a man capable of dealing with details and that, when confronted with unpleasant realities, he merely pretends that these do not exist.

A good example of this approach is his constant claim that Britain could continue enjoying uninterrupted trade with the EU even without concluding a deal, by using broader provisions of the World Trade Organisation, the international body tasked with regulating global trade activities.

But when he was recently asked whether he had actually read these provisions, Mr Johnson merrily admitted that he had not.

And at the last party electoral rally this week, he brandished a smoked fish allegedly given to him by an "utterly furious" British fisherman, who complained that "after decades" of sending such fish to his customers through the post, "he has had his costs massively increased" by an EU regulation demanding that each fish consignment be accompanied with an ice pack.

"Pointless, pointless, expensive, environmentally damaging health and safety," Mr Johnson shouted before pledging to "take back control" of Britain's regulatory framework.

"There are things that we will be able to do when we come out of the EU," he added.

Unfortunately for the would-be prime minister, he picked the wrong example. For it turned out that the rules requiring fish to be ice-cooled in transit were not issued by the EU but by Britain's own government, so it will continue to apply even after Brexit.

To make matters worse, the fisherman who sent the pungent sample is based on a small offshore self-governing British island which has never been part of the EU.

Regardless of such mishaps, Mr Johnson seems set to win the premiership race, largely because his party's members enjoy his antics.

"The English love a buffoon," remarked Mr Max Hastings, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph.

And he should know. For it was Mr Hastings who first gave Mr Johnson a job as a journalist.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2019, with the headline Much-criticised Boris Johnson looks set to become British PM. Subscribe