LONDON – Boris Johnson broke cover Tuesday after accusations of ducking scrutiny in his bid to become Britain’s next prime minister, defending his Brexit strategy but saying it would be “unfair” to discuss his private life.
The frontrunner to replace Prime Minister Theresa May gave a series of broadcast interviews and arranged several campaign events, after his rival Jeremy Hunt had urged him not to be a “coward” by shunning media appearances.
It came as the ruling Conservatives set the date to announce the winner of the race to become party leader — and therefore prime minister — as July 23.
Just 160,000 party members will decide between current Foreign Minister Hunt and his predecessor, Johnson, in the ballot, which was triggered by May’s resignation as her bid to steer Britain out of the European Union collapsed.
Johnson is known for his big personality but has been keeping a low profile during the campaign, in what appears to be a bid by his team to stop him from making any major gaffes.
But since a story broke last week about a noisy row with his girlfriend that prompted a police visit, but no further action, he has come under increasing pressure to break his silence.
He told the BBC late Monday that he had never spoken about his loved ones in public because “if you do, you drag them into things that … in a way that is not fair on them.”
However, in a radio interview on Tuesday, he refused to explain how a photo of him and his girlfriend holding hands in a countryside setting made its way to the newspapers.
Johnson has also faced repeated demands to clarify his position on how Britain would leave the European Union, the biggest challenge facing the country’s next leader.
He has promised to deliver Brexit on the latest delayed deadline of Oct. 31 — telling TalkRadio it would happen “do or die, come what may.”
But he acknowledged that he would need the cooperation of Brussels to cushion any economic disruption, telling LBC radio: “There has to be agreement on both sides.”
Businesses fear leaving Britain’s closest trading partner with no new arrangements would be catastrophic.
Around a dozen Conservative MPs are also said to be ready to bring down a Johnson government to stop this “no deal” scenario.
Johnson and Hunt were selected from a wide field of candidates by Conservative MPs.
Both men are taking part in 16 party meetings around Britain, and although one TV debate was canceled Tuesday after Johnson refused to take part, another is planned for July 9.
Hunt, who took over as foreign minister when Johnson quit last year, is the underdog and as such has taken every opportunity to give interviews and pose for photos.
On Brexit, Hunt too has said he is willing to accept a “no deal” departure, but says he is prepared to delay Brexit to get an agreement.
Both men are hoping to renegotiate the divorce deal May struck with the EU last year, which Parliament has repeatedly rejected — even through Brussels says this is not possible.
Johnson said he wanted to keep “the best bits,” which protect the rights of EU expats and set up a post-Brexit transition period.
He suggested trade terms stay the same until a new free trade agreement could be struck, with Britain withholding its £39 billion ($50 billion) share of EU liabilities until this is done.
Johnson says he would prepare to take Britain out of the EU anyway if Brussels will not agree.
However, the EU has repeatedly said it will not sign any deal that does not include the “backstop” plan to keep open the border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
This would keep Britain in the EU’s customs union and require Northern Ireland to follow other rules set by the bloc until another way was found to avoid border checks.
Johnson said “technical fixes” could provide a way of verifying the origin and compliance of goods without physical frontier checks, but admitted there was “no single magic bullet.”
In the LBC interview, Johnson also strongly denied claims by former U.S. President Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon that the pair had worked together, saying it was “codswallop.”
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