Sat | Sep 26, 2020

Johnson under pressure ahead of final UK election TV debate

Published:Saturday | December 7, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson sits on a train in London yesterday, on the campaign trail ahead of the general election on December 12.


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is preparing to take on opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the last head-to-head debate before a general election in six days – and facing allegations that he’s shirking tough questions about his character and record.

Friday’s televised showdown comes amid an ongoing controversy over Johnson’s decision to avoid an in-depth interview with Andrew Neil, a BBC journalist known for his forensic questioning. Four other party leaders, including Corbyn, endured such a grilling, and Neil has accused Johnson of “running scared.’’

Neil issued a challenge to Johnson on national television Thursday, saying political leaders in the last two UK elections had agreed to be interviewed by him: “All of them. Until this one.”

He said Johnson needed to answer questions about trust, “and why at so many times in his career, in politics and journalism, critics and sometimes even those close to him have deemed him to be untrustworthy.”

Cabinet minister Michael Gove, a Johnson ally, urged voters to call 10 Downing Street and ask whether Johnson would agree to the interview – even reading out the number for the prime ­minister’s office on LBC radio.

Johnson shrugged off the pressure, insisting he had done plenty of interviews during the campaign, and appeared to lump Neil in with a joke candidate in the election.

“We cannot accommodate everybody,” he said. “There’s guy called Lord Buckethead who wants to have a head-to-head debate with me. Unfortunately, I’m not able to fit him in.”

Johnson, a former mayor of London who helped lead the campaign to take Britain out of the European Union, has long faced questions about his character. As a journalist, he was once fired for fabricating a quote. In politics, he was sacked as party vice-chairman for lying about an extramarital affair. In a magazine article last year he called Muslim women who wear face-covering veils “letter boxes.” Authorities are investigating his relationship with American tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri, who allegedly received favours and public funds while Johnson was the mayor of London. But Johnson has insisted that “everything was done with full propriety.”

And yet opinion polls put Johnson’s Conservatives ahead of the Labour opposition ahead of the election next Thursday, in which all 650 House of Commons seats are up for grabs. The Tories are keen to avoid any slip-ups that could endanger that lead.

The Conservatives had a minority government before the election, and Johnson pushed for the December vote, which is taking place more than two years early, in hopes of winning a majority and breaking Britain’s political impasse over Brexit. He says that if the Conservatives win a majority, he will get Parliament to ratify his Brexit divorce deal and take the UK out of the EU by the current January 31 deadline.

Johnson’s opponents say his promise to “get Brexit done” rings hollow, because leaving the bloc will be the prelude to months or years of complex trade negotiations.

Labour took aim Friday at Johnson’s insistence that there will be no new checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK after Brexit. The divorce deal Johnson has negotiated with the bloc agrees to keep Northern Ireland aligned to EU customs rules and some goods standards to avoid checks along the currently invisible border with EU member Ireland.

Trade experts say that means some checks will have to be conducted on goods moving across the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Labour said it had obtained a leaked Treasury document that says “there will be customs declarations and security checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain,” and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay has previously said there will have to be some checks.

Corbyn said the document “drives a coach and horses through Boris Johnson’s claim that there will be no border in the Irish Sea.”

But Johnson claimed it was “nonsense” to suggest there would be any new checks.