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story.lead_photo.caption Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a media conference in London, Friday, Nov. 29, 2019. Britain goes to the polls on Dec. 12. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

LONDON -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised Friday to bolster protections for British businesses and farmers once the country has exited the European Union.

However, critics said Johnson is struggling to move Britain's election debate away from questions about his character, saying he was brushing aside criticism of his past comments about single mothers and his current refusal to submit to the same amount of televised scrutiny as other party leaders.

At a news conference, Johnson claimed Brexit had been "delayed, diluted, denied" by obstructive politicians. He said that if the Conservatives win the Dec. 12 election, he would take the U.K. out of the European Union on the currently scheduled date of Jan. 31, so that "we can finally move on as a country."

He touted what he called the benefits of the departure from the 28-nation trade bloc, saying his government would introduce new state-aid rules allowing the government to step in to help struggling businesses. The level of support that EU governments can give industries is now limited by regulations barring anything that might distort competition.

Johnson also vowed to scrap an EU-required tax on tampons and sanitary pads and to introduce a requirement for public bodies to buy British produce rather than imports.

Promising more state intervention in the economy is reminiscent of the left-of-center Labor Party, rather than the free-marketeer Conservatives, and appears designed to help the party, popularly called the Tories, win over Brexit-backing Labor supporters.

All 650 seats in the House of Commons are up for grabs in the Dec. 12 election, which is being held more than two years early after Parliament became deadlocked over Brexit.

Johnson wants to secure a Conservative majority in the election so he can push through the Brexit divorce deal he negotiated with the EU. Under the terms of that deal, the U.K. would leave the EU on Jan. 31 but remain bound by the bloc's rules until the end of 2020.

On Friday, Johnson repeated his assertion that Britain and the EU will be able to strike a new free trade deal by the end of next year, a time scale trade experts say is wildly ambitious.

"I am full of optimism and confidence and suggest that everybody else should be as well," he said.

But Johnson also announced plans to diverge from EU rules in significant ways, which would make it harder to retain close trade ties with the bloc. And he said he would not extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020, even if no trade deal was in place.

Economists warn that a no-deal Brexit would plunge Britain into recession and severely impede commerce with the EU.

The governing Conservatives are upbeat about their chances in the elections. With less than two weeks until polling day, they are keen to limit the prime minister's opportunities for gaffes and slip-ups.

That has led to allegations that Johnson is dodging scrutiny. Johnson declined to take part in a debate Thursday alongside his main opponent, Jeremy Corbyn of the Labor Party, and other party leaders. Johnson has so far refused to commit to a one-on-one TV interview with BBC interrogator Andrew Neil.

"I've done plenty of debates," Johnson told radio station LBC on Friday. "I can't do absolutely everything."

The Conservatives were also embroiled in a feud with broadcaster Channel 4 over the network's decision to put an Earth-shaped ice sculpture in place of Johnson after he declined to appear for Thursday's climate change-themed TV debate.

The party complained to Britain's broadcast watchdog, Ofcom, over what it called "a provocative partisan stunt."

Five party leaders joined the debate. Johnson and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage declined to attends.

Johnson has faced questions about his character throughout the campaign. The prime minister has a history of making offensive remarks, including a newspaper column last year in which he compared women who wear face-covering veils to "letter boxes."

This week the Labor Party unearthed an article Johnson wrote in conservative magazine the Spectator in 1995 in which he called the children of single mothers "ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate."

A Section on 11/30/2019

Print Headline: Johnson: Will protect farmers, businesses in Brexit

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