Theresa May’s hopes of winning parliament’s backing for her Brexit deal have been plunged into fresh doubt after Jo Johnson resigned from the government and accused her of offering MPs a choice between “vassalage and chaos”.
Four months after his Brexiter brother Boris quit as foreign secretary, the remainer MP for Orpington, and erstwhile transport minister, said he could not vote for the deal that May is expected to bring back to parliament within weeks, and instead would throw his weight behind a second referendum.
Jo Johnson MP: the less well-known younger brother
When Jo Johnson made his maiden speech in the House of Commons, shortly after his election in 2010, he was keen to highlight the differences with his better known, older brother.
“Anyone hoping that I will enliven proceedings in the manner of one of my elder brothers, the former member for Henley, is likely to be disappointed,” the newly elected MP said, before giving a short political history of his constituency, Orpington in Kent.
Yet, humour apart, the similarities between Boris and Jo are far greater than the differences. Both were educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, although Jo, seven-and-a-half-years younger, outshone Boris with a first in modern history.
Jo Johnson also pursued a career in journalism before entering politics, after a short stint at Deutsche Bank. He worked at the Financial Times for 13 years, where he edited the Lex investment column after stints abroad in Paris and New Delhi.
The 46-year-old was selected for the safe Conservative seat of Orpington by the narrowest of margins, beating Sajid Javid, after the first ballot between the two was tied. He won by a single vote among association members on the second ballot.
A ministerial career looked likely and Johnson became the first in his family to get a job at No 10 when he was made head of the Downing Street policy unit by David Cameron in 2013 although, at the time, there was some surprise not because of his talents but because of his relative leftwing views.
Some colleagues even described him as “pro European” but he compiled the 2015 manifesto on behalf of Cameron, which included the fateful promise to hold an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
Johnson subsequently became universities minister after the 2015 election, a job he enjoyed and in which he tried to wrestle with the problem of growing student debt, before, to his disappointment, he was reshuffled to become rail minister.
In his resignation statement Johnson warned that Theresa May’s Brexit plans would leave the UK “vassalage and chaos”. If his career as an MP began with a promise that he would sound different to his brother, with his latest criticisms of the prime minister he sounds dangerously similar.
“It has become increasingly clear to me that the withdrawal agreement, which is being finalised in Brussels and Whitehall even as I write, will be a terrible mistake,” he wrote in an online article.
He said the public were being offered “an agreement that will leave our country economically weakened, with no say in the EU rules it must follow and years of uncertainty for business” or a no-deal Brexit “that I know as a transport minister will inflict untold damage on our nation.
“To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis.”
May is expected to call a special cabinet meeting next week as she tries to persuade ministers to unite behind her proposals for the Irish backstop. Brexit secretary Dominic Raab is believed to be particularly concerned about the risk of the UK being locked into a customs union with the EU indefinitely.
The pound fell on the foreign exchanges after Johnson’s resignation, sliding by almost 0.7% against the dollar to drop below $1.30.
Johnson said the mooted deal had united him in “fraternal dismay” with Boris, who stepped down as foreign secretary in July over May’s Chequers strategy.
“My brother Boris, who led the leave campaign, is as unhappy with the government’s proposals as I am,” Johnson said. “Indeed he recently observed that the proposed arrangements were ‘substantially worse than staying in the EU’. On that he is unquestionably right.”
The former foreign secretary tweeted about his “boundless admiration” for his brother:
Boundless admiration as ever for my brother Jo. We may not have agreed about brexit but we are united in dismay at the intellectually and politically indefensible of the UK position 1/2 https://t.co/QI4tMpLecc— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) November 9, 2018
Their sister, the journalist Rachel Johnson, also tweeted:
Am hugely proud of my honourable and principled brother Jo who has put the interests of the country ahead of his political career https://t.co/CCXH6bbDQF— Rachel Johnson (@RachelSJohnson) November 9, 2018
Their father, Stanley Johnson, interviewed on Channel 4 News, praised his son and cited Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade: “The prime minister charges on into the valley of death. And thank God Jo has come out today with a bit of sanity. Saying we have got to draw back from this cliff edge.”
The former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, who backs the campaign for another referendum, said: “This is a very significant resignation. Here is a young politician with everything to gain from staying inside the government, pursuing his distinguished career, keeping his head down and waiting for events to take their course.
“He has not done that. He has resigned on an issue of principle, putting the country before his party and his own career.”
As Johnson added his voice to the small but growing list of Conservatives calling for the public to be given a say on Brexit, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told German newspaper Der Spiegel: “We can’t stop it. The referendum took place. Article 50 has been triggered. What we can do is recognise the reasons why people voted leave.”
Corbyn and his frontbench colleagues have consistently said they will respect the result of the 2016 referendum, fearing that leave voters in Labour constituencies would reject the party if it swings its weight behind blocking Brexit.
Corbyn also said: “I’ve been critical of the competitions policy in Europe and the move towards free market, and obviously critical in the past of their treatment of Greece, although that was mostly the eurozone that did that. My idea is of a social Europe with inclusive societies that work for everyone and not just for a few.”
Johnson’s shock resignation came just hours after May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, said he remained confident that the government could win MPs’ backing for the deal.
Johnson’s statement was published after May spent much of the day in France and Belgium, laying wreaths alongside fellow leaders to mark the centenary of the armistice.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The referendum in 2016 was the biggest democratic exercise in this country’s history. We will not under any circumstances have a second referendum. The PM thanks Jo Johnson for his work in government.”
We’ve been hurtling towards a blindfolded Brexit, so it’s about time politicians hand back control to the peopleEloise Todd, Best for Britain CEO
Johnson’s resignation highlighted the fact that some Conservative remainers, as well as disgruntled Brexiters, could vote against May’s deal, threatening her chances of achieving a majority in the “meaningful vote”.
As negotiations with Brussels enter their final fraught days, May’s approach to the talks has come under fire from both wings of her warring party, with the pro-Brexit European Research Group and europhiles such as Anna Soubry, fiercely critical of her stance.
Following Johnson’s resignation, Soubry said: “Jo isn’t the only minister who shares these views and I hope others will follow his lead. We are reaching that time when people have to stand up and be counted, because if they don’t we are going to sleepwalk to disaster and it doesn’t have to be like this.”
The DUP, whose 10 MPs May relies on for her majority, has also suggested it could vote down the deal if it fears it could result in new customs or regulatory checks between the UK and Northern Ireland.
In seeking to prevent that outcome, the government is proposing that the UK would effectively enter a temporary customs union with the EU if a trade deal cannot be struck by the end of the transition period in December 2020 to avoid such checks.
Johnson became the latest senior Tory to back the idea of a second referendum and appeared to support the approach suggested by the former education secretary Justine Greening, who has suggested a three-option referendum.
“On this most crucial of questions, I believe it is entirely right to go back to the people and ask them to confirm their decision to leave the EU and, if they choose to do that, to give them the final say on whether we leave with the prime minister’s deal or without it,” Johnson said. “To do anything less will do grave damage to our democracy.”
His decision was welcomed by campaigners for a second referendum, with some privately suggesting other junior ministers could join him in the coming days.
Eloise Todd, of the anti-Brexit campaign group Best for Britain, said: “This is an incredibly brave move from Jo Johnson at a time when the public desperately needs more MPs to act in the national interest.
“We’ve been hurtling towards a blindfolded Brexit for too long, so it’s about time that politicians hand back control to the people of this country by giving them the final say on Brexit with the option to stay and lead in Europe.”
The shadow Brexit minister, Jenny Chapman, said: “Jo Johnson is the 18th minister to resign from Theresa May’s government. She has lost all authority and is incapable of negotiating a Brexit deal within her own party, let alone with the EU.”