LONDON (AFP) – Boris Johnson said Wednesday he would only take Britain out of the EU without a deal as a “last resort”, launching his campaign to be prime minister with a promise to unify a country deeply divided over Brexit.
The former foreign minister is the favourite among the 10 candidates vying to succeed Theresa May, who is stepping down after being forced to delay Britain’s departure from the European Union twice.
At a launch event in London packed with senior members of the ruling Conservative party, Johnson insisted that Brexit must happen on October 31, the latest deadline agreed with Brussels.
He said Britain must prepare to leave with no new arrangements if need be, but softened his previous rhetoric, suggesting that this was “a last resort, not something that anybody desires”.
Johnson said a new government with “new optimism” and “total conviction about the way forward” could find a way to find a compromise, although he gave no detail.
The EU has insisted repeatedly that it will not renegotiate the terms of the divorce, while parliament has previously voted against leaving without an accord.
But a new cross-party effort to block a chaotic end of the 46-year partnership failed on Wednesday, potentially leaving more room for manoeuvre for a future premier.
Johnson was a leading figure in the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU and one of Britain’s most recognisable politicians, known nationwide as just Boris.
But he is also one of its most divisive, accused of lying in the Brexit campaign, making embarrassing policy gaffes and drawing criticism for derisory comments about ethnic minorities and gay people.
In his speech, Johnson skipped over an underwhelming two-year stint as foreign minister and instead drew on his eight years as mayor of London, which he said gave him the experience to govern.
Questioned about his comment that Muslim women in full face veils looked like “letter boxes”, he said voters were alienated by politicians using “bureaucratic platitudes”.
“I’m sorry for the offence that I have caused but I will continue to speak as directly as I can,” he said.
However, he refused to clarify whether he had taken cocaine, an issue that has dogged leadership rival Michael Gove.
“The canonical account of this event when I was 19 has appeared many many times and I think what most people in this country really want us to focus on in this campaign is what we can do for them,” he said.
Conservative lawmakers were to hold the first of a series of secret ballots on Thursday on the leadership candidates, who also include foreign minister Jeremy Hunt and interior minister Sajid Javid.
Officially launching his campaign on Wednesday, Javid highlighted the racial barriers he had to surmount as a child of Pakistani immigrants, recalling racial abuse in school and being told that “my face didn’t fit”.
“I am used to people telling me what I can’t do,” Javid said, adding that he was “uniquely qualified” to safely take Britain out of the EU on October 31.
He gave no specifics, but has previously said he would support the no-deal option over seeing no Brexit at all.
The 313 Conservative MPs will whittle down the field to two by June 20, and that pair will then be put to a ballot of around 160,000 Conservative party members.
The winner should be in Downing Street in late July.