Johnson’s Election Troubles Grow as U.K. Minister Quits Cabinet

(Bloomberg) --

Things keep going wrong for Boris Johnson as he seeks to win a Conservative majority in the U.K.’s Dec. 12 general election.

The prime minister’s bid was rocked by a cabinet resignation on Wednesday, just minutes before he launched the campaign. Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns quit after reports he knew about a former aide’s role in the collapse of a rape trial.

The U.K.’s main opposition Labour party also suffered a blow when deputy leader Tom Watson announced he would be leaving full-time politics after 35 years. He has clashed in the past with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn over the direction of the party.

But it will be Cairns’s resignation -- the first by a cabinet minister during an election campaign for at least 100 years -- that resonates for Johnson. It is a blow for the Tories at the start of one of the most unpredictable contests in recent history.

While they have a double-digit lead over Labour Party in several recent polls, the negatives are already piling up for the premier.

Johnson sought to regain the initiative at his first campaign event, a rally in Birmingham, central England on Wednesday evening.

"Come with us and we will get Brexit done," he told a crowd of hundreds of cheering Conservative politicians and activists, holding up campaign placards.

Johnson claimed he was most "proud" of the Brexit deal he negotiated with the European Union, and that it delivered everything he campaigned for in the 2016 referendum. That was aimed at countering the threat from Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who claims Johnson’s deal is a betrayal and is urging Tories to abandon it. If Farage wins enough votes, he could seriously damage Johnson’s chances of forming a majority government next month.

The main slogan for Johnson’s event, emblazoned on the lectern and on screens around the hall, was: "Get Brexit Done -- Unleash Britain’s potential."

Johnson said Corbyn wants more "dither" and delay, with another Brexit referendum in 2020. "This country is aching to move on," the Tory leader said, to cheers and chants of "Boris! Boris!" He added: "Let’s get out of the rut of the last three years."

Trial Sabotage

The speech followed Cairns’s resignation earlier on Wednesday over allegations he approved the selection of a former aide as a Tory candidate even though he’d been accused by a judge of sabotaging a rape trial. Cairns said in a letter to Johnson that he is “confident I will be cleared of any breach or wrongdoing.”

Johnson’s Election Troubles Grow as U.K. Minister Quits Cabinet

Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly earlier gave a series of TV and radio interviews in which he tried to contain the fallout from comments by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was forced to apologize for suggesting the 72 people killed in the 2017 Grenfell tower-block fire hadn’t shown “common sense.”

Those remarks were then compounded by fellow Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, who suggested Rees-Mogg would have survived the fire because he is more “clever” than the victims. Bridgen also apologized, but opponents said the pair’s comments showed the party is out of touch with ordinary people.

‘Poisonous Heart’

“What Rees-Mogg and Bridgen said goes to the poisonous heart of the Tories’ attitude towards people in our communities,” Labour’s campaign coordinator, Andrew Gwynne, said in a statement.

In another setback for the Conservatives, the country’s most senior civil servant blocked the Treasury from publishing costings for the opposition Labour Party’s policies. According to a Treasury official, the announcement had been ready to go on Tuesday, but after complaints from Labour, Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill refused to let it proceed.

Also on Tuesday, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said he would be quitting Parliament after his expulsion from the Tory party. He didn’t leave quietly, saying in a letter to constituents that he was “saddened” by the situation after 45 years of party membership.

“The Conservative Party that I have served has always had room for a wide range of opinions and has been tolerant of measured dissent,” Hammond wrote. “Many Parliamentary colleagues have defied the party whip on occasions without any action being taken against them,” he added in a swipe at Johnson, who himself twice voted against the Brexit deal secured by his predecessor, Theresa May.

Johnson holds a rally on Wednesday evening in the West Midlands, where he will reiterate his core pledges to deliver Brexit and move on to addressing policing, health care and education. But there’s a danger for the prime minister that the drip drip of negative stories may swamp that message.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.