Party faithful order Boris Johnson to deliver on swift Brexit pledge

Voters for UK’s likely new leader say they will turn on him if he fails to quit the EU this year

CHELTENHAM, ENGLAND - JULY 12: Boris Johnson gestures onstage during the Conservative leadership hustings at Cheltenham Racecourse on July 12, 2019 in Cheltenham, England. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are the remaining candidates in contention for the Conservative Party Leadership and thus Prime Minister of the UK. Results will be announced on July 23rd, 2019. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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As rebels go, Lina Dimitri cuts an unlikely figure.

As one of the 160,000 members of the UK’s ruling Conservatives, Ms Dimitri will help decide the new leader of the party – and country – to replace outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May.

Her preference is for the quixotic pro-Brexit former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, but her backing comes with a warning: If Mr Johnson does not take the UK out of the 28-nation European bloc on October 31, she will turn her back on the party.

“That will be the last thing he does. He will be out, and it will be the end of the Conservative Party,” she said before the latest meet-the-candidates session for party members in the southeast of England.

At the moment, Ms Dimitri is taking Mr Johnson at his word that Britain will leave the European Union “do or die” on October 31 this year.

If he did not, said Ms Dimitri, it would be another person reneging on the result of the 2016 referendum when the UK narrowly voted to leave the world’s largest trading bloc.

“It’s like a cheating husband. Once, twice you might forgive, but the third time – you leave. If he doesn’t get us out, then he would end up as the shortest-serving prime minister.”

Paid-up members of the party have dwindled from a high point of some 3 million members in the 1950s, but still wield the power to select the UK’s next prime minister.

They are generally pro-Brexit. More than half of them are aged above 55 and the luxury saloons that fill the car park before the leadership question-and-answer session at an agricultural showground also pointed to their greater wealth compared to the average Briton.

The candidates – Mr Johnson and the current foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt – have tailored their campaign message to suit this group of voters, dubbed by one commentator in the New York Times as a “fanatical sect”.

For Mr Johnson, it has meant beating the Brexit drum throughout the campaign. He has taken every opportunity to contrast his stance with Mr Hunt, a Brexit-convert who backed remaining in the European Union before the 2016 referendum.

Polls suggest it has been a winning strategy with Mr Johnson expected to take the post by a large margin when the result is announced on July 23 – despite a series of setbacks, including criticism for his lukewarm support for a British diplomat after his criticisms of Donald Trump in diplomatic messages were leaked. Mr Johnson has repeatedly sought to shift blame to the leaker.

But Mr Johnson’s message to members of the party on Thursday was intended to display that he was the only man who could be trusted on Brexit.

He dismissed suggestions that it was “fanciful” to say Britain could leave on October 31, with MPs from his own party threatening to use parliament to block any attempt to leave the European Union without a negotiated deal on trade and future relations in place.

“We will be ready on October 31 and we’ve got to get on and do it,” to the cheers of several hundred supporters. His party, which has been in government for 27 of the last 40 years, would not recover as a political force for “many, many years” if it did not take Britain out of the European Union, he said.

Both men have promised tax cuts and improved support for the military if named as successor to Mrs May. But many of the people leaving the venue who will help decide the next leader insisted that it would be on Brexit that the next leader would be judged.

“I agree with a lot more of Hunt’s policies on tax and defence,” said Kain Jackson, 19, a gardener, after the leadership event. “But the main point for the party is to succeed and get on with Brexit. And for that, Johnson is the man.”

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