A LOYALIST WHOSE RESIGNATION LEFT FRIENDS IN SHOCK
JO JOHNSON, modest, reticent and something of a loner, has long been regarded by Westminster watchers as a paler version of his flamboyant older brother Boris. He’s the Bobby Ewing to Boris’s ‘charismatic, naughty JR in Dallas’, according to one political commentator.
There was, however, nothing pale about the full-blooded assault Jo launched on the Prime Minister yesterday as he blatantly borrowed from his sibling’s playbook.
Fundamentally a loyalist and a moderate, his resignation statement has shocked even his closest friends.
One of Jo’s most wounding charges against Theresa May was that her Brexit proposals ‘present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos’. It was, he continued, ‘a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis’. Sound familiar?
Less than a month ago, Boris was urging the PM to make a tougher stand on the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ issue, saying: ‘If we let this go it will be the greatest national humiliation since Suez.’
Similarly, last year Boris said that if Britain left but remained in close continued alignment with EU rules, ‘people would ask “what is the point of what you have achieved?” because we would have gone from a member state to a vassal state’. The similarities in their language are all the more extraordinary given that the brothers are firmly entrenched on opposite sides of the Brexit debate.
Jo Johnson, 46, who stood down as transport minister, is the paid-up member of the Michael Heseltine Europhile wing of the Tory party who wants to kill Brexit, hence his call for a second referendum.
Boris, 54, who quit the Cabinet in July over the PM’s Chequers proposals, is the standard bearer of the hardline Brexiteers who wants to make the cleanest possible break from Brussels.
Now, they are united in a common cause on the back benches because, as their sister, journalist Rachel Johnson, said last night, ‘neither of them want the Brexit on offer’.
Boris lost no time tweeting his support yesterday, but the question is: will they put the fierce Johnson competitiveness and the personal ambition they both harbour to one side to work together, and what will it mean for Mrs May if they do? They have always been close despite a childhood that, according to Boris’s biographer Andrew Gimson, was one of ‘cut-throat meal-time quizzes, fearsome ping-pong matches, height, weight and blondeness contests’.
TOmany – and not least himself – it has always seemed that it was Boris’s destiny to one day move into Downing Street. But it was Jo, elected as the MP for Orpington in 2010 after a career as a journalist, who became the first Johnson to take up residence in No 10 as head of the Downing Street Policy Unit. Boris had to make do with City Hall as Mayor of London.
Jo had been the surprise choice of David Cameron to head the unit in 2013 and Johnson ‘Minor’, as he was known after following in Boris’s footsteps at Eton, revelled in getting one over his big brother. It wasn’t the first time Boris had been left eyeing Jo a little jealously. He had graduated from Oxford with a first-class degree in modern history, while Boris had only managed a 2:1 in classics. Jo then acquired two further degrees from European universities.
It didn’t help when he was working on the 2015 Tory manifesto. The first draft was thrown back at him as ‘useless’. But he persevered and toughened up, and after the Tory election victory, he was given the post of minister for universities and science.
Today he is regarded as an important member of the Remainer clan in the Tory parliamentary party known as the ‘Sensibles’, led by former deputy PM Damian Green, Chancellor Philip Hammond, former home secretary Amber Rudd and Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories.
Boris’s resignation was seen by most MPs for what it was: the nakedly ambitious former foreign secretary limbering up for a challenge to Mrs May over what he describes as her ‘deranged’ Chequers plan.
But Jo’s decision to go is not about personal ambition, according to his friends, but because he sees a chance to scupper Brexit. He has also been unhappy as transport minister, having been moved sideways in the last reshuffle.
Rachel Johnson, an ardent Remainer, said last night she did not anticipate any tension in the family and would be playing tennis against Jo this morning as usual.
Would she let him win in recognition of his principled decision to quit? ‘ No,’ she replied. ‘He always beats me anyway.’ Both brothers would continue to ‘fight their corners’, she added.
If Boris and Jo choose to forge a new alliance from the Left and Right of the party in any leadership battle, they will be a formidable duo. And Mrs May knows it.