MANCHESTER, England (AP) — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson battled to fend off allegations of improper patronage and groping a woman as he prepared a final push Monday to fulfill his pledge to lead his country out of the European Union in just over a month — and, he hopes, move British politics beyond its fracture over Europe.
Johnson sought to energize Conservative members and lawmakers — weary after three years of Brexit gridlock — at the party’s annual conference, but he was forced to deny a journalist’s claim that he had grabbed her thigh at a private lunch two decades ago.
Sunday Times columnist Charlotte Edwardes said the incident took place when she worked at The Spectator, a conservative newsmagazine, while Johnson was its editor.
Asked if the allegation was true, Johnson said: “No.”
Edwardes stood by her story, tweeting: “If the prime minister doesn’t recollect the incident then clearly I have a better memory than he does.”
Johnson also is under scrutiny for claims that an American businesswoman, Jennifer Arcuri, received money and perks from London coffers while Johnson was mayor of the capital between 2008 and 2016.
He denies any wrongdoing involving Arcuri, who was given grants and places on overseas trade trips for her small tech startup, saying everything was done “with full propriety.” The case has been referred to Britain’s police watchdog, which will decide whether to investigate Johnson for misconduct in public office.
Johnson, who took over as Conservative leader and prime minister from Theresa May two months ago, has vowed that Britain will leave the European Union on the scheduled date of Oct. 31 with or without a divorce deal governing future relations with the bloc. His foes in Parliament — who include some longtime members of his own party — are determined to avoid a no-deal exit, which economists say would disrupt trade with the EU and plunge Britain into recession.
Legislators have already passed a law that compels the government to seek a delay to Brexit if it can’t strike a deal with the EU by Oct. 19. But with Johnson saying he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than postpone Britain’s departure, opposition parties are seeking ways to make sure he complies.
Opposition leaders held a strategy meeting Monday in London, with no definitive conclusion. They ruled out an immediate attempt to topple the government with a no-confidence vote. That could trigger an election, but not until after Oct. 31.
Jo Swinson, leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, said the parties would continue to meet “to plan out different scenarios and different options, including the possibility of an insurance option of a government of national unity” if Johnson’s government was brought down by lawmakers.
The personal allegations against Johnson overshadowed the Conservative Party’s four-day annual conference in the northwestern England city of Manchester, where Johnson is trying to rally the party — and prepare for an election that could come within weeks — under the slogan “Get Brexit Done.”
Billboards around the cavernous Manchester convention center promised a bright future in which Britain is no longer consumed and divided by Brexit: “Get Brexit done — invest in schools and police.”
In a keynote speech, Treasury chief Sajid Javid promised many millions in new investment, and pledged to raise the minimum wage, currently 8.21 pounds ($10) an hour, to 10.50 pounds ($13) within five years.
The Confederation of British Industry welcomed the speech, although the business group said Javid had avoided the elephant in the room: Brexit.
“It feels like there was a page missing from his speech,” said Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn. “It was silent on how the government and the Treasury would respond to the serious rupture caused by failing to secure a deal with the EU — and the implications for the investments he announced today.”
Johnson denied that the claims of misconduct were a distraction from the message he was trying to convey.
“I think what the public want to hear is what we are doing to bring the country together and get on with improving their lives,” he said.
The Conservative conference follows a tumultuous week for Johnson. Last week the U.K. Supreme Court declared that Johnson’s attempt to suspend Parliament for five weeks was illegal. He cut short a trip to the United States, racing home to face the House of Commons, where lawmakers greeted him with cries of “Resign!” He then lost a vote on a normally routine matter — a request to adjourn for a week so that Conservatives could attend their conference.
Johnson was also accused of inflaming tensions in Britain with populist, people-versus-politicians rhetoric. He branded an opposition law ordering a Brexit delay as the “Surrender Act” and said postponing the country’s departure would “betray” the people who voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU. He also dismissed the complaints of some opposition lawmakers who reported they have received death threats.
Johnson later claimed he had been “a model of restraint.”
The allegations cut little ice with many Conservative delegates, who cheered and shouted “Boris!” as Johnson walked into the conference center from a nearby hotel.
“Is your conference ruined?” a journalist shouted.
Johnson made no reply.
Javid said he had “full faith in the prime minister,” adding: “I don’t think it’s a good idea to get drawn into personal allegations.”
But some Conservatives expressed unease. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he knew Edwardes and “I entirely trust what she has to say.”
And Justine Greening, a former Conservative minister who was expelled from the party in Parliament for backing opposition attempts to stop a no-deal Brexit, said the allegations were “deeply concerning.”
“They go to the heart of this question about character and integrity of people in public life and what standards the electorate have a right to expect,” she said.
Associated Press writer Gregory Katz in London contributed.
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