LONDON (Reuters) -- Boris Johnson kicked off his campaign to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday with a commitment to lead Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31, warning his divided Conservative Party "delay means defeat”.
To a packed room where some supportive lawmakers were forced to stand, Johnson drew on his past as a former London mayor to try to persuade Conservatives that only he could take the party to election victory, explaining away some of his well-documented gaffes as his desire to "speak as directly as I can”.
"After three years and two missed deadlines, we must leave the EU on October 31,” he said as a heckler repeatedly yelled "Bollocks to Boris” from outside the Royal Academy of Engineering, just off The Mall in central London.
"I am not aiming for a no-deal outcome,” said Johnson, a 54-year-old former foreign minister.
"I don’t think that we will end up with any such thing, but it is only responsible to prepare vigorously and seriously for no-deal. Indeed it is astonishing that anyone could suggest dispensing with that vital tool in the negotiation.”
May’s premiership crumbled after she repeatedly failed to convince parliament to ratify the divorce deal she negotiated with the EU. Supporters of Brexit said May’s deal would have kept the United Kingdom far too closely tied to the bloc.
Johnson, whose unconventional style has helped him shrug off a series of scandals in the past, has won over many in his party by arguing that only he can rescue the Conservatives by delivering Brexit.
For many, the contest for prime minister is his to lose - he has the most declared Conservative supporters in parliament and is widely popular among the party’s members, the people who will ultimately choose May’s successor.
In a room full of Conservatives loyal to his campaign who groaned when journalists brought up lists of past indiscretions, including a report he had taken cocaine, Johnson repeatedly sidestepped questions, using his trademark colorful metaphors and language to change the subject.
The United Kingdom could be heading toward a constitutional crisis over Brexit as many of the candidates vying to succeed May are prepared to leave the EU on Oct. 31 without a deal but parliament has indicated it will try to thwart such a scenario, concerned about the potential economic and other disruptions.