LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is preparing to take on opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the last head-to-head debate before a general election in six days — and facing allegations that he’s shirking tough questions about his character and record.
Friday’s televised showdown comes amid an ongoing controversy over Johnson's decision to avoid an in-depth interview with Andrew Neil, a BBC journalist known for his forensic questioning. Four other party leaders, including Corbyn, endured such a grilling, and Neil has accused Johnson of "running scared.''
Neil issued a challenge to Johnson on national television Thursday, saying political leaders in the last two U.K. elections had agreed to be interviewed by him: “All of them. Until this one.”
He said Johnson needed to answer questions about trust, “and why at so many times in his career, in politics and journalism, critics and sometimes even those close to him have deemed him to be untrustworthy.”
Cabinet minister Michael Gove, a Johnson ally, urged voters to call 10 Downing St. and ask whether Johnson would agree to the interview — even reading out the number for the prime minister's office on LBC radio.
Johnson shrugged off the pressure, insisting he had done plenty of interviews during the campaign, and appeared to lump Neil in with a joke candidate in the election.
“We cannot accommodate everybody,” he said. “There’s guy called Lord Buckethead who wants to have a head-to-head debate with me. Unfortunately, I'm not able to fit him in.”
Johnson, a former mayor of London who helped lead the campaign to take Britain out of the European Union, has long faced questions about his character. As a journalist, he was once fired for fabricating a quote. In politics, he was sacked as party vice chairman for lying about an extramarital affair. In a magazine article last year he called Muslim women who wear face-covering veils “letter boxes.” Authorities are investigating his relationship with American tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri, who allegedly received favors and public funds while Johnson was the mayor of London. But Johnson has insisted that “everything was done with full propriety.”
And yet opinion polls put Johnson’s Conservatives ahead of the Labour opposition ahead of the election next Thursday, in which all 650 House of Commons seats are up for grabs. The Tories are keen to avoid any slip-ups that could endanger that lead.
The Conservatives had a minority government before the election, and Johnson pushed for the December vote, which is taking place more than two years early, in hopes of winning a majority and breaking Britain's political impasse over Brexit. He says that if the Conservatives win a majority, he will get Parliament to ratify his Brexit divorce deal and take the U.K. out of the EU by the current Jan. 31 deadline.
Johnson's opponents say his promise to “get Brexit done” rings hollow, because leaving the bloc will be the prelude to months or years of complex trade negotiations.
Labour took aim Friday at Johnson’s insistence that there will be no new checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. after Brexit. The divorce deal Johnson has negotiated with the bloc agrees to keep Northern Ireland aligned to EU customs rules and some goods standards to avoid checks along the currently invisible border with EU member Ireland.
Trade experts say that means some checks will have to be conducted on goods moving across the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Labour said it had obtained a leaked Treasury document that says “there will be customs declarations and security checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain,” and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay has previously said there will have to be some checks.
Corbyn said the document “drives a coach and horses through Boris Johnson's claim that there will be no border in the Irish Sea."
But Johnson claimed it was “nonsense” to suggest there would be any new checks
The Conservative Party said the leaked document was an "immediate assessment” rather than a detailed analysis.
Labour has promised to negotiate a new Brexit deal, then give voters a choice between leaving on those terms and remaining in the bloc. It also has a radical domestic agenda, promising to nationalize key industries and utilities, hike the minimum wage and give free internet access to all.
The party has struggled to persuade voters that its lavish spending promises are deliverable without big tax hikes. Labour's campaign also has been dogged by allegations that Corbyn — a long-time champion of the Palestinians — has allowed anti-Jewish prejudice to fester in the left-of-center party.
Corbyn has called anti-Semitism "a poison and an evil in our society" and says he is working to root it out of the party.
This election is especially unpredictable because the question of Brexit cuts across traditional party loyalties. For many voters, their identities as "leavers" or "remainers" are more important than party affiliations.
The Conservative lead suggests the party has managed to win over many Brexit-backing voters, while Labour faces competition for pro-EU electors from the centrist Liberal Democrats and several smaller parties.
But the Conservatives have also lost support from some pro-EU voters by taking a strongly pro-Brexit stance. Several ex-Conservative lawmakers who were expelled for rebelling over Brexit are running against their old party as independents.
The independent former Tories were endorsed Friday by former Conservative Prime Minister John Major, who called Brexit the "worst foreign policy decision in my lifetime."
"It will make our country poorer and weaker,” he said. “It will hurt most those who have least.”
Associated Press writer Danica Kirka contributed to this story.
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