Blow for May as another Johnson quits over Brexit
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
Jo Johnson resigned as transport minister, saying the deal offered a choice between ‘vassalage and chaos’