June 25, 2019 / 1:46 PM / 2 months ago

Boris Johnson for UK prime minister? It's a love-hate thing, say voters

LONDON (Reuters) - Delyth Miles should hate Boris Johnson but she loves him.

Boris Johnson, a leadership candidate for Britain's Conservative Party, talks with visitors during a walkabout at Wisley Garden Centre in Surrey, Britain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

The 66-year-old who worked as a school’s careers adviser and volunteers at her local church says the most important principles in her life are honesty, family values and morality. She abhors drug taking and adultery.

Miles knows Johnson, the frontrunner to be Britain’s next prime minister, has been fired twice for lying, including once for failing to tell the truth about an extra-marital affair.

She knows he has been accused of paying for a lover to have an abortion and has admitted taking cocaine.

But when she votes in the Conservative leadership contest next month she will enthusiastically back Johnson, saying that leaving the European Union and reviving the party’s flagging fortunes are more important than concerns about his character.

“It is complex, I sometimes struggle to explain it to myself,” said Miles who is originally from Wales but now lives in the English seaside town of Clacton near London.

“You either love him or you hate him. If you do love him you see past his faults, and I am one of them. I don’t particularly like his lack of morality.”

Britain is looking for a new prime minister because Theresa May has said she will step down after failing to unite the nation behind her plan to leave the EU on schedule in March. Britons voted by 52% to 48% in a 2016 referendum to leave.

Her successor will lead a fragile minority government. He will face a deeply split parliament where there is no consensus on what Brexit should look like, and a negotiating partner in Brussels whose patience with British politics has worn thin.

The ruling Conservative Party’s 160,000 members, mostly pro-Brexit and right-wing, will choose between Johnson and foreign minister Jeremy Hunt. The result will be announced on July 23.

Johnson, 55, a former mayor of London, is the overwhelming favorite to win despite a chaotic private life and a reputation for lies, exaggerations, a lack of seriousness and discipline.

Over the weekend, Johnson faced fresh questions about his suitability to be prime minister after reports emerged that he had an argument with his girlfriend. She was heard saying “get off me” and “get out of my flat”.

The fallout from the altercation has dominated headlines in the British press for days. Some of his opponents have asked him to explain what happened and criticized the way he treats women in relationships.

NO MOTHER THERESA

Ed Costelloe, the chair of the group Conservative Grassroots, says most party members want Johnson because they see him as a savior who can deliver Brexit amid opposition from the political establishment.

“Brexit cannot be achieved by a civil service, administrative approach. It has to be achieved like big guns blazing a la Trump,” Costelloe said, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump’s unconventional, combative approach to politics.

“Boris is a flawed character and flaky but most politicians are underneath,” he added.

Costelloe said former prime minister David Lloyd George, who led Britain to victory in World War One, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy were examples of successful politicians with flawed personal lives.

“It would be lovely to have Mother Theresa as prime minister, but it ain’t going to happen,” he said.

Hunt, Johnson’s rival, has also promised to deliver Brexit but - like May - he voted ‘Remain’ in the 2016 referendum and says he would consider a delay to ensure a smooth exit - two factors that make party members suspicious about his commitment.

By contrast, Johnson was the public face of the ‘Leave’ campaign and says Brexit will happen on Oct. 31 “deal or no deal”.

Some members certainly see Hunt, 52, as a safer bet.

Mary Douglas, a Hunt supporter and Conservative councillor in Wiltshire, southern England, draws a parallel with the United States, where she thinks voters made a mistake in backing Trump despite concerns about his character.

“I am so keen that we do not repeat that mistake because it is my strong view that you get the ruler you deserve. I would hate for us to be in the same position as America,” she said.

Boris Johnson, a leadership candidate for Britain's Conservative Party, poses for a selfie in Oxshott, Surrey, Britain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

But many members think only a charismatic, unambiguously pro-Brexit leader like Johnson can ensure victory in an election - which may come quite soon, given the deadlock in parliament - over left-winger Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, which topped the European Parliament election in Britain last month mainly at the Conservatives’ expense.

“Corbyn, like it or not, is a popular figure who can energize crowds, get headlines and make people stop and follow him,” Stephen Canning, a Conservative councillor in south-east England.

“We need a leader of the Conservative Party who can do exactly the same, and to me Boris Johnson is the only one of the two of them ... who could really electrify audiences and build a following.”

Reporting By Andrew MacAskill and William James; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Gareth Jones

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