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Thursday July 9th, 2020 3:42AM

Johnson hit by Cabinet resignation as UK election kicks off

By The Associated Press
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LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson argued Wednesday that voting for the Conservatives was the only way to end delays over Brexit, as he officially launched an election campaign already marred by gaffes and the resignation of a Cabinet minister.

Speaking outside his No. 10 Downing St. office on the first official day of Britain's five-week campaign, Johnson said the political impasse over Britain's departure from the European Union made him want to "chew my own tie in frustration."

"I don't want an early election, and no one much wants to have an election in December, but we have got to the stage where we have no choice," he said.

Setting the stage for a people-versus-Parliament campaign, Johnson said lawmakers were "refusing time and again to deliver Brexit and honor the result of the referendum."

In fact, lawmakers approved Johnson's EU divorce deal in principle last month, but asked for more time to scrutinize it. Johnson then withdrew the bill and pushed for an early election instead.

Johnson also slammed his main rival, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, comparing him to former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and — erroneously — claiming he had sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over a nerve-agent attack on British territory.

All 650 seats in the House of Commons are up for grabs in the Dec. 12 election, which is coming more than two years early. Some 46 million British voters are eligible to take part in the country's first December vote in 96 years.

Johnson urged voters to deliver a Conservative majority so Britain could "put uncertainty behind us." With that support, Johnson vowed he would get Parliament to ratify his Brexit deal and the country would leave the EU as scheduled on Jan. 31.

Brexit was supposed to happen on Oct. 31, but with Britain's politicians deadlocked, the bloc granted the U.K. a three-month delay.

While unofficial campaigning has been gearing up for weeks, the five-week election campaign formally began when Parliament was dissolved Wednesday. Johnson went to Buckingham Palace to notify Queen Elizabeth II of that and was to attend his first campaign rally later in central England.

The Conservative campaign has had with a rocky start. Just minutes before Johnson's introductory comments on Wednesday, Cabinet Minister Alun Cairns resigned over allegations concerning a former aide's role in a rape trial.

Cairns said he was quitting as Welsh secretary because of "speculation" surrounding the "very sensitive matter," which is under investigation. He said he was confident he would be cleared of wrongdoing.

Cairns denies allegations that he knew his former staffer Ross England made claims about a victim's sexual history when he was a witness in a 2018 rape trial — something that is not allowed and caused the trial to collapse. The judge accused England of deliberately sabotaging the trial. Cairns later endorsed England as a candidate for the Welsh Assembly elections.

On Tuesday, another Conservative, outgoing House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, was forced to apologize for suggesting that the victims of a 2017 London apartment block inferno that killed 72 people lacked common sense for following fire department advice to wait in their apartments for help.

The comments drew sharp rebukes from opposition politicians — as well as one from rap star Stormzy, who urged the Conservative lawmaker to resign and tweeted: "These politicians are actual aliens."

The Conservatives were also criticized for posting a doctored video of a senior Labour figure on Twitter that appeared to show him failing to answer a question, when in fact he did. Conservative Party chair James Cleverly said Wednesday the ad was just "a lighthearted satirical video."

Political insults are already flying thick and fast. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson accused the left-of Labour of attacking the rich "with a relish and vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks," the wealthier peasants targeted by the Soviet regime in the 1930s.

In his Downing St. speech, Johnson claimed inaccurately that Corbyn had "sided with Putin" after a former Russian spy and his daughter were attacked with a nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury.

Corbyn initially asked for "incontrovertible evidence" that Moscow was behind the 2018 attack, as the British government claimed. He later said he believed Russia was responsible.

Corbyn, meanwhile, has labelled Johnson's economic plans "Thatcherism on steroids," in reference to the free-market, low-spending ideology of the late former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The Labour Party wants to focus the election debate away from Brexit and onto domestic issues such as health care, the environment and social welfare, saying it will reverse Britain's increasing social inequality.

Other parties in the race include the Liberal Democrats, who want to cancel Brexit; the Scottish National Party, which also opposes Brexit and wants Scotland to leave the U.K. and become an independent country; and the Brexit Party, which says Britain should leave the bloc without a deal.

"I was not born to rule," Corbyn told supporters in Telford, central England, contrasting himself with the affluent, Oxford University-educated Johnson. "I don't pursue the kind of politics that thinks it's all a game, a parlor game, a debating society game."

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Follow AP's full coverage of Brexit and British politics at https://www.apnews.com/Brexit

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