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9 November 2018updated 02 Sep 2021 5:35pm

Jo Johnson’s resignation lays bare Theresa May’s impossible Brexit task

The Remainer minister’s decision to quit - and back a second referendum - underlines the extent to which any deal will struggle to win the support of the Commons.  

By Patrick Maguire

Jo Johnson, the transport minister, has resigned from the government to vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal and has urged the prime minister to “give the people the final say”.

A loyal member of the government payroll, Johnson’s resignation comes as something of a shock and was announced in a video statement and blog post in which he accused the government of “a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis” and described the choice between the Brexit deal likely to be secured by the prime minister and no deal as “two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos”.

“What is now being proposed won’t be anything like what was promised two years ago,” he wrote. “Hopes for ‘the easiest trade deal in history’ have proved to be delusions. Contrary to promises, there is in fact no deal at all on our future trading relationship with the EU which the government can present to the country.

“Still less anything that offers the ‘exact same benefits’ as the Single Market, as David Davis promised, or the “precise guarantees of frictionless trade” that the Prime Minister assured us would be available. All that is now being finalised is the agreement to pay the EU tens of billions of pounds.

“All that may be on offer on trade is the potential for an agreement to stay in a temporary customs arrangement while we discuss the possibility of an EU trade deal that all experience shows will take many years to negotiate.”

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Johnson is, of course, the second member of his immediate family to resign over Brexit and addressed sections of his resignation statement directly to Boris, his elder brother. “My brother Boris, who led the leave campaign, is as unhappy with the Government’s proposals as I am. Indeed, he recently observed that the proposed arrangements were ‘substantially worse than staying in the EU’. On that he is unquestionably right. If these negotiations have achieved little else, they have at least united us in fraternal dismay.”

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Of the likely impact of a no-deal Brexit, he wrote: “My message to my brother and to all Leave campaigners is that inflicting such serious economic and political harm on the country will leave an indelible impression of incompetence in the minds of the public. It cannot be what you wanted nor did the 2016 referendum provide any mandate for it.”

Notably, however, the younger Johnson does argue that Britain could weather the economic storm of a no-deal Brexit and writes that it could well be preferable to implementing the Chequers plan. “Yet for all its challenges and for all the real pain it would cause us as we adapt to new barriers to trade with our biggest market, we can ultimately survive these difficulties. I believe it would be a grave mistake for the government to ram through this deal by once again unleashing Project Fear. A ‘no deal’ outcome of this sort may well be better than the never ending purgatory the Prime Minister is offering the country.”

Brexiteers, including the elder Johnson, have praised the resignation. Responding on Twitter, Boris wrote: “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. This is not taking back control. It is a surrender of control. It does not remotely correspond to the mandate of the people in June 2016.”

For Theresa May, it is an unwelcome reminder that discontent with her Brexit plans runs on both sides of the Conservative Party’s theological divide. Speculation as to who on the government benches will oppose any Brexit deal in the Commons has focused almost exclusively on Brexiteers and the DUP. Rebellions by Remainers over Brexit votes have largely been confined to single figures and have, by and large, been unsuccessful. But it’s worth remembering that the first ministerial resignation was that of Philip Lee, a little-known Remainer, rather than a Brexiteer.  

Johnson will likely join several former cabinet ministers – namely Amber Rudd, Justine Greening and Nicky Morgan – who are agitating for a second referendum from the backbenches (though he declined to prescribe his preferred method of “giving the people the final say”). This continuity Remain caucus has little in common with the ERG but Johnson’s resignation statement illustrates the extent to which their analysis of May’s Brexit plans is essentially the same.

While their desired outcomes are fundamentally different, there is a straightforward way both can take the first step towards them: voting against the Withdrawal Agreement. Opposition from the DUP and the hard core of Tory Brexiteers meant it was already difficult to see it passing the Commons, and Johnson’s departure throws into harsh relief the number of avenues by which May is likely to lose support if she maintains her current course. (Labour’s response, in which it accused the Prime Minister of being “in office, and not in power”, highlights another difficulty: the party will whip its MPs to vote against the deal and May will have a difficult task convincing anywhere near enough of them to vote with her.)

Many members of the government payroll will freely admit in private that they too harbour the feelings Johnson has articulated so devastatingly this afternoon. What remains to be seen, however, is if any of them will follow his lead.