Blow for May as an­other John­son quits over Brexit

The Guardian - - FRONT PAGE - Heather Stew­art

Theresa May’s hopes of win­ning MPs’ back­ing for her Brexit deal were plunged into fresh doubt when the trans­port min­is­ter Jo John­son re­signed from the gov­ern­ment yes­ter­day, ac­cus­ing her of of­fer­ing a choice be­tween “vas­salage and chaos”.

Four months af­ter his Brex­iter brother, Boris, quit as for­eign sec­re­tary, the re­main-back­ing MP for Or­p­ing­ton in Kent said he could not vote for the deal May is ex­pected to bring back to par­lia­ment within weeks and in­stead would throw his weight be­hind a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum.

“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.

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.”

John­son said he was united in “fra­ter­nal dis­may” with his brother, who stepped down in July say­ing he could not sup­port May’s Che­quers strat­egy. “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,” he said.

The for­mer for­eign sec­re­tary tweeted his “bound­less ad­mi­ra­tion” for his brother, say­ing: “We may not have agreed about Brexit but we are united in dis­may at the in­tel­lec­tu­ally and po­lit­i­cally in­de­fen­si­ble … UK po­si­tion.”

His shock res­ig­na­tion came hours af­ter May’s de facto deputy, David Lid­ing­ton, said he re­mained con­fi­dent that the gov­ern­ment could win MPs’ back­ing for the deal.

Lid­ing­ton has in­sisted the gov­ern­ment re­mains con­fi­dent it can get its Brexit deal through par­lia­ment, de­spite the

Demo­cratic Union­ist party warn­ing it was pre­pared to vote it down.

Speak­ing in the Isle of Man, where he was at­tend­ing a meet­ing of the British-Ir­ish Coun­cil, Lid­ing­ton said he be­lieved a “new dy­namic” would emerge once MPs saw the full text of the pro­posed agree­ment. He said: “I hope and I be­lieve that we can se­cure that ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment.”

Down­ing Street re­sponded with a terse state­ment. A 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.”

As ne­go­ti­a­tions with Brus­sels en­ter their fi­nal days, May’s ap­proach to the talks has come un­der fire from both wings of her party, with the pro-Brexit Eu­ro­pean Re­search Group, and eu­rophiles such as Anna Soubry, fiercely crit­i­cal of her stance. Fol­low­ing John­son’s res­ig­na­tion, Soubry told the Guardian: “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 sug­gested it could vote down the deal if it fears it could re­sult in new cus­toms checks be­tween the UK and North­ern Ire­land.

In seek­ing to prevent that out­come, the gov­ern­ment is propos­ing that the UK would in ef­fect 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 said: “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. To do any­thing less will do grave dam­age to our democ­racy.”

As John­son added his voice to the small list of Tories call­ing for the pub­lic to get a say on Brexit, the Labour leader, Jeremy Cor­byn, told a Ger­man news­pa­per: “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,” he told Der Spiegel. Cor­byn fears leave vot­ers in Labour seats would re­ject the party if it swung its weight be­hind block­ing Brexit. Ad­di­tional re­port­ing: Stephen Moss

PHO­TO­GRAPH: STE­FAN ROUSSEAU/PA

Jo John­son re­signed as trans­port min­is­ter, say­ing the deal of­fered a choice be­tween ‘vas­salage and chaos’

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