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December 13, 2019

Boris Johnson: polarising leader focused on Brexit


December 13, 2019

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to end the Brexit turmoil and unite Britain if re-elected on Thursday, but critics accuse him of Trump-style populism that will only divide the country further.

The former London mayor has toned down his trademark jokes and bluster, as he focuses on a promise to "Get Brexit Done" by finally taking Britain out of the European Union. Opinion polls suggest his efforts to present himself as a strong and optimistic leader are working and his Conservative party is on course to win a majority in the House of Commons.

But Johnson remains a polarising figure, not least for his leading role in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, which was marked by exaggerated claims about the EU and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

His tendency to play to the crowd both as a politician and in his previous career as a journalist has also drawn accusations of racism and misogyny. The list of offences -- writing about gay "bumboys" and veiled Muslim women looking like "letter boxes" -- has grown with comments unearthed in the campaign, including about "feckless" working-class men and single mothers.

But he denies he meant any harm and supporters dismiss this as "just Boris", welcoming his off-the-cuff style as a sharp contrast to the soundbites of many other politicians. Crucially, many voters believe he is a better proposition than left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who polls put as the most unpopular opposition leader of the past 45 years.

Johnson’s relaxed style and lack of attention to detail has led to accusations of incompetence -- a perception fuelled by a chequered stint as foreign minister under former premier Theresa May.

He was notably accused by the family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman held in Tehran for sedition, of jeopardising her case by mischaracterising her job at the time. His aides point instead to the coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats by many of Britain’s allies, including the United States, after a nerve agent attack in England last year blamed on Moscow.

His occasionally eccentric behaviour can be a blessing on the campaign trail. But it can also be a hindrance, as demonstrated this week when he took a reporter’s phone as he tried to show him a photograph of a boy sleeping on a hospital floor and put it in his pocket. He also bizarrely appeared to hide in a fridge to avoid a TV interview on Wednesday.

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