UTTOXETER, England — On the second-to-last day of Britain’s landmark election campaign, Prime Minister Boris Johnson drove a backhoe through a wall of Styrofoam bricks. The wall was labeled “Gridlock,” while the backhoe was emblazoned with a Union Jack and the slogan “Get Brexit Done.”
As political stunts go, it was hardly subtle. But it was a fitting end to a campaign that has had all the nuance of an earth mover.
When Mr. Johnson faces British voters on Thursday, he is betting that his blunt-force message on Brexit will bulldoze three and a half years of political gridlock. The polls indicate he might be right: His Conservative Party has clung to a steady, if narrowing, lead over the Labour Party. If it holds, it would give Mr. Johnson the majority in Parliament he needs to take Britain out of the European Union.
For the 55-year-old prime minister, whose brief tenure has been marked by legal setbacks, scorched-earth politics and unrelenting turmoil, it would be a striking political vindication, one that belies his clownish image and positions him to lead Britain through its most radical transition since the end of World War II.
“This is a momentous occasion for our country,” Mr. Johnson told workers at a gleaming new factory built by JCB, a British construction-equipment maker in the Midlands, after he had climbed out of the backhoe. “I’ve never known a moment when the choice before us was so clear and so stark.”
Yet the deep bitterness of the campaign attests to the divisiveness of Mr. Johnson’s binary message. It is less an appeal to an inspiring new vision of Britain than a grim promise to voters utterly fed up with talking about Brexit that he will get it done — once and for all, and regardless of what comes afterward.
For all his talk of how consequential this election is, Mr. Johnson has either avoided talking about the far-reaching effects of leaving the European Union or making far-fetched claims about Britain’s shimmering post-Brexit future. His party’s campaign manifesto is brief and vague, designed to avoid the traps that ensnared his predecessor, Theresa May. He waves away thorny questions like how he plans to negotiate a trade agreement with Europe in less than 12 months.
“This is a transactional election,” said Andrew Gimson, who wrote an early biography of Mr. Johnson. “People are voting for Boris to get Brexit done, not because they love the Conservative Party.”
There are few more transactional figures in British politics than Mr. Johnson. Largely devoid of big ideas or a coherent ideological framework, he has climbed the ranks by combining a quicksilver political expediency with a populist’s instinct for appealing to certain voters. In this campaign, he has repeated the phrase “Get Brexit done” so often that it has become a kind of incantation.
Never mind that Brexit — should Mr. Johnson get it done by the end of next month, as he has pledged — would be just the start of the next phase in the country’s painful divorce from the European Union, which could take many more years.
Mr. Johnson is famous for his shambling manner, a raffish untidiness that extends from his clothes to his personal life. It has been one of the ingredients of his political success, lending him an ordinary-guy appeal that would otherwise come hard to a Greek-poetry-quoting graduate of Eton and Oxford.
In the campaign, however, Mr. Johnson has shown himself to be remarkably disciplined, sticking to his message, despite the best efforts of his opponents to shift the debate to other issues, like health care or crime. He seems less the happy warrior than a hyper-cautious tactician, one who started the campaign with a healthy lead and has been determined not to put it at risk.
“In a sense, you’re getting the truer Boris Johnson, which is not the clownish, cuddly fellow,” said Sonia Purnell, another of Mr. Johnson’s biographers. “He is more ruthless than anyone you or I have ever met.”
Mr. Gimson offered a more generous interpretation. “He’s quite an experienced campaigner,” he said. “Boris actually has thought through his campaign plan, and all the evidence on the ground is that it is working.”
Mr. Johnson spent much of the campaign in the Midlands and the north, wooing working-class voters in corroded industrial towns who once voted so reliably for the Labour Party that the region was known as the party’s “red wall.” Many of them voted for Brexit in 2016 and blame the political establishment for thwarting their democratic will.
He has hoisted a gutted cod in a fish market in the port town of Grimsby, weighed boxes of tea bags at a Tetley Tea factory in Eaglescliffe, in the northeast, and mopped a floor in the flood-damaged Derbyshire town of Matlock — drawing japes for his janitorial skills but grudging affection for the effort.
“I like Boris,” said Malt Keeling, a butcher in Sutton-in-Ashfield, a Midlands town where the Conservative candidate for Parliament has a good chance of picking off a longtime Labour seat. “He’s not for the working man, I admit that,” said Mr. Keeling, who is 55. “But the Tories run the economy better.”
Mark Heald, an unemployed Labour voter in nearby Kirkby-in-Ashfield, credited Mr. Johnson for putting Britain on the brink of leaving the European Union. “Everything he’s said he would do, he’s done it,” he said.
But Mr. Heald, 44, said he was not ready to break with Labour. “This is the thing about this country: Who do you trust?” he said. “I don’t trust any of them. I’ve voted Labour all my life, so I’ll stick with them.”
Trustworthiness has never been Mr. Johnson’s strong suit, and he did little to improve his reputation during this campaign.
At the factory in Uttoxeter, he promised that Brexit would uncork a flood of pent-up investment in Britain (“We’ll start to get our mojo back, to be perfectly frank,” he said). What he failed to mention was that his own government had forecast that Brexit could reduce growth by as much as 6.4 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product by 2034.
As he has throughout his career, Mr. Johnson still affects a carefree insouciance about the details. In Uttoxeter, he said he needed to wrap up his remarks because, “I now have to go,” pausing for several awkward seconds, as he looked around for a prompt from an aide, “somewhere else.” The audience tittered.
Still, Mr. Johnson’s single-mindedness has unexpectedly made his campaign a somewhat joyless affair. There have been few moments of genuine spontaneity and more instances of protesters heckling.
The most memorable image of Mr. Johnson’s campaign may prove to be his tense exchange with a local reporter who was trying to show him a photo of a child who had been forced to sleep on the floor of a hospital in Leeds because of a lack of beds. Rather than express sympathy for the child, a defensive Mr. Johnson grabbed the reporter’s phone and stuffed it in his pocket.
Mr. Johnson’s aides have tried to soften his image. They released a commercial, inspired by a scene from the film, “Love Actually,” in which he turns up at a woman’s door and pleads wordlessly for her vote with flash cards (one of the film’s stars, Hugh Grant, has campaigned vigorously against him).
But the prime minister, who made his name as a journalist, has methodically avoided scrutiny from the news media. He limits access to reporters who cover his campaign and ducked an interview with the BCC’s infamous interrogator, Andrew Neil. On Wednesday, when a reporter asked him to go on camera with the TV anchor Piers Morgan, Mr. Johnson escaped into a walk-in refrigerator.
Such tactics outrage journalists in London. But it is not clear that they have hurt him with the working-class voters he is targeting. Despite Mr. Johnson’s messy personal life, allegations of misconduct while he was mayor of London and his disingenuous handling of Brexit, the news media have scarcely laid a hand on him.
In this, he is similar to another populist politician with a checkered past who ran a convention-flouting campaign and won, said Baroness Rosalind Scott, a member of the House of Lords and a former president of the Liberal Democrats.
“One of the things they learned from Donald Trump,” she said, “is that the rules are there to be broken.”
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