After a bruising week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson entered the warm embrace of his Conservative party’s annual conference on Sunday vowing to “get Brexit done”.
Despite a string of parliamentary setbacks and a defeat in the Supreme Court, Johnson insists he will take Britain out of the European Union next month, with or without a deal with Brussels.
“What we need to do is to move on. And the way to do that is to get Brexit done on October 31,” he told BBC television in Manchester, northwest England, where the conference is taking place.
His tough stance has put him at odds with many of his own MPs in the House of Commons, who helped passed a law blocking a “no deal” exit — an outcome they fear would be hugely disruptive.
But the tough talk resonates with the pro-Brexit party members who elected him in July, and who held up signs on the conference floor with the “Get Brexit Done” slogan.
In what is likely to be the centre-right party’s final gathering before a general election, several ministers took the stage on Sunday repeating that only the Conservatives would deliver on the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU.
“While the difficulties caused by leaving without a deal will pass, the damage to our democracy in not getting Brexit done would endure and resound for much longer,” said Michael Gove, the minister for Brexit preparations.
However, none of the ministers offered insight on how Johnson will overcome his main hurdle: getting a divorce deal with the EU in the next few weeks — the only legal way to keep to the October 31 deadline.
‘Model of restraint’
Johnson has had a turbulent two months in office, having suffered seven successive defeats in the Commons — in the process losing his majority.
He expelled 21 Conservative MPs when they backed a law requiring him to ask EU leaders to delay Brexit if he cannot get a deal by a summit on October 17-18.
After the Supreme Court ruled his suspension of parliament unlawful, Johnson challenged opposition parties to bring down his government — but they spurned the chance.
In response, he has accused MPs of “surrendering” to the EU.
His rhetoric drew accusations of stoking division, but he insisted Sunday he had been a “model of restraint”.
Senior minister Jacob Rees-Mogg later won a standing ovation when he told conference: “Parliament is now holding the people in contempt.”
The four-day gathering risks being disrupted by parliamentary business in London.
Opposition MPs were furious at Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament for five weeks in early September — a move the Supreme Court quashed on Tuesday — and refused to agree to the normal conference recess.
Some are threatening manoeuvres from Monday that could force ministers to race back to Westminster.
Polls, but protests
Main opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says he wants an election but will do nothing to bring it about until a “no deal” Brexit is no longer possible.
But with parliament deadlocked, most commentators expect an election in the coming months — and there is evidence that Johnson’s stance is winning votes.
Two surveys this week, by YouGov and Opinium, put the Conservatives 11 and 12 points ahead of Labour, fuelled by the support of pro-Brexit voters.
The party also unveiled new health spending on Sunday, with further pre-election pledges expected over the coming days.
Several thousand people protested outside the conference on Sunday against years of public spending cuts and the prime minister’s stance on Brexit.
“He’s weak, he’s scaremongering and spreading hate,” said Emily Barr, a 22-year-old charity worker from Sheffield.
In a further headache for Johnson, a police watchdog is looking into whether he should face investigation over his links to a US tech entrepreneur.
The Sunday Times newspaper alleged he was having an affair with former model Jennifer Arcuri while he was London mayor.
It claims he failed to declare a series of potential conflicts of interest over benefits provided to her business.
The premier insisted on Sunday: “Everything was done with full propriety.”