One thing unites Bri­tain: PM’s Brexit deal is in peril

Jo John­son’s res­ig­na­tion high­lights the op­po­si­tion to May on both sides of the di­vide– and out on the streets, opin­ions are chang­ing too. By Toby Helm, Eleni Courea and Amy Walker

The Observer - - Focus -

Or­p­ing­ton is half an hour’s train ride from Lon­don and has all the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a sub­ur­ban mar­ket town: in­de­pen­dent shops, tra­di­tional English cafes and pubs. A lit­tle way down the road from its train sta­tion, a thatched house hosts the lo­cal Con­ser­va­tive As­so­ci­a­tion. An enor­mous Jo John­son ban­ner is hoisted on the lawn out­side, and his face stares down at driv­ers head­ing fur­ther south into Kent. De­spite that, and the fact that it is less than 24 hours since this par­tic­u­lar John­son quit the govern­ment and wors­ened the Brexit cri­sis en­gulf­ing Theresa May, many of his con­stituents on the tree-lined high street don’t recog­nise his name.

At Reku Zen, an Asian restau­rant, Denislav Ivanov, 24, is mop­ping floors. He’s only heard of the other Tory MP called John­son. “The guy with the hair has a brother and he’s anti-Brexit?” asks Ivanov, in­cred­u­lous. He thinks Brexit will be bad for our econ­omy, but hav­ing moved around Europe since he left Poland, he isn’t wor­ried about his own sta­tus. “I speak Spanish, I’m young – I’ll move to Spain,” he says.

Some of those who did know their MP by name had also clocked his res­ig­na­tion on Fri­day. “I heard him warn­ing that Brexit will make the traf­fic in Dover get a lot worse, be­cause of cus­toms checks,” says Frieda McClorey, 85, as she waits for her bus. “I think he did the right thing in re­sign­ing. I voted to re­main, even though many of my friends voted to leave. I’m hop­ing there will be an­other ref­er­en­dum,” she says.

Across the street, Char­lotte Drake, 29, is taking a break from work as a men­tor for the Na­tional Cit­i­zen­ship Project. She, like a ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in Or­p­ing­ton, voted Leave. She was and re­mains con­cerned about im­mi­gra­tion. But Drake now thinks the Leave cam­paign made a lot of false prom­ises. “A lot of peo­ple are chang­ing their minds,” she says – but stops short of re­veal­ing her own hand.

If Jo John­son’s res­ig­na­tion has the ef­fect in­tended then it will ac­cel­er­ate the switch of views that Drake has no­ticed in this cor­ner of Kent. De­spite all the deep and bit­ter divi­sions at West­min­ster and across the coun­try, and suc­ces­sive res­ig­na­tions from her govern­ment (Jo John­son was the sixth min­ster to quit specif­i­cally over Brexit), Theresa May has al­ways hung on in the be­lief that, when it came to the crunch mo­ment, when a deal was on of­fer that would take the UK out of the EU on 29 March next year, her party and the coun­try would unite suf­fi­ciently be­hind her to al­low a with­drawal agree­ment to pass through par­lia­ment. The coun­try would rally be­hind her vision of Brexit.

But in­stead, as peo­ple be­come more aware of what leav­ing the EU en­tails, many MPs be­lieve the re­verse may be hap­pen­ing. This week­end, with time run­ning out, Tory Re­main­ers and Brex­iters are in­creas­ingly unit­ing – but in the op­po­site way to what the prime min­is­ter had hoped. More and more are speak­ing out against what is on of­fer – from their dif­fer­ent sides of the Brexit ide­o­log­i­cal di­vide. The John­son fam­ily is split be­tween Brex­iter Boris and the Re­main­ers in the tribe, his brother Jo, sis­ter Rachel, and fa­ther Stan­ley. But they agree on one thing: that May’s deal would be an ap­palling one for the coun­try, leav­ing the UK with a far worse ar­range­ment than if it re­mained in the EU.

With Labour com­mit­ted to vot­ing against any deal that does not meet its six tests, and Tory hard Brex­iters led by Ja­cob Rees-Mogg also threat­en­ing to vote her deal down, May’s hopes of win­ning an “ap­proval mo­tion” in par­lia­ment would ap­pear to be fad­ing fast. Omi­nously, too, the 10 Ul­ster Union­ist MPs who prop up May’s ad­min­is­tra­tion are say­ing they will re­ject any­thing that might cre­ate a hard bor­der in the Ir­ish Sea.

Yes­ter­day, Jo John­son en­cour­aged other Tory min­is­ters to fol­low him out of the govern­ment if they feel as he does. “I think this is so im­por­tant that it’s up to MPs to take a stand. I’ve done so; if oth­ers feel that it’s right for them to do so, good on them,” he told BBC Ra­dio 4’s To­day pro­gramme. “This is one of the most mo­men­tous ques­tions we will ever face in our po­lit­i­cal ca­reers. And ev­ery­body is think­ing very hard about it.”

He acted, he said, be­cause he felt a duty to his con­stituents in Or­p­ing­ton. The mo­tor­ways through Kent would be­come a gi­ant lorry park and the eco­nomic dam­age would be felt by ev­ery­one. “My pri­or­ity is re­ally just to do my bit as a now back­bench MP to try and en­cour­age the coun­try to pause and re­flect be­fore we do some­thing that is ir­re­vo­ca­bly stupid.” Call­ing for a new ref­er­en­dum, the for­mer trans­port min­is­ter added: “My view is that this is so dif­fer­ent from what was billed that it would be an ab­so­lute trav­esty if we do not go back to the peo­ple and ask them if they ac­tu­ally do want to exit the EU on this ex­traor­di­nar­ily hope­less ba­sis.”

Yes­ter­day, the for­mer ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary, Jus­tine Green­ing, added to the sense of a Tory party at war, tear­ing into May’s pro­posed deal and say­ing it would achieve the pre­cise op­po­site to what Eu­roscep­tics had al­ways wanted – a re­turn of sovereignty to the UK from the EU. “The par­lia­men­tary deadlock has been clear for some time,” Green­ing said. “It’s cru­cial now for par­lia­ment to vote down this plan, be­cause it is the big­gest give­away of sovereignty in mod­ern times. In­stead, the govern­ment and par­lia­ment must recog­nise we should give peo­ple a fi­nal say on Brexit. Only they can break the deadlock and choose from the prac­ti­cal op­tions for Bri­tain’s fu­ture now on the ta­ble.”

The Tory MP and archRe­mainer Anna Soubry spent much of yes­ter­day talk­ing to peo­ple in her con­stituency of Brox­towe in Not­ting­hamshire, in­clud­ing some pre­vi­ous hard-line Brex­iters, and said she had noted a swing in opin­ion. “There are peo­ple who were un­flinch­ing Brex­iters, the true be­liev­ers, who are now say­ing that rather than have this ghastly agree­ment, which is nei­ther fish nor fowl, and with all the eco­nomic dam­age that would fol­low, we should think again and give peo­ple a chance to re­ject it. What Jo John­son has ar­tic­u­lated is what more and more peo­ple have been be­gin­ning to feel – that we can­not go ahead with this as it not what any­one, what­ever their orig­i­nal views were, wants.”

With more Tory Re­main­ers and Leavers now op­pos­ing her, May’s task is daunt­ing. Down­ing Street’s im­me­di­ate task is to get her deeply split cabi­net to unite around the fi­nal un­re­solved el­e­ment of a po­ten­tial deal with the EU: the legally com­plex is­sue of how to avoid a hard bor­der be­tween North­ern Ire­land and the Re­pub­lic af­ter Brexit. Down­ing Street knows it is in a race against time. May is des­per­ate to put a mo­tion be­fore the House of Com­mons be­fore Christ­mas, in the hope that, some­how, it will pass. Num­ber 10 has pen­cilled in a cabi­net meet­ing for early this week, prob­a­bly on Tues­day. But dis­agree­ments re­main among her most se­nior min­is­ters over how the UK would exit from the so-called “back­stop” agree­ment, un­der which the whole

‘Many peo­ple are chang­ing their minds – the Leave cam­paign made a lot of false prom­ises’

Char­lotte Drake, above

of the UK would re­main in the EU cus­toms union un­til a fi­nal UK-EU trade deal is struck. Sev­eral cabi­net min­is­ters are un­happy with what they fear will be fudged word­ing in the with­drawal agree­ment that fails to chart a clear path to exit the back­stop. They want to see the full le­gal ad­vice and want guar­an­tees that the EU will not be able to pre­vent us break­ing free from its sys­tem once and for all, so the UK can strike its own trade deals.

Michael Gove, Sa­jid Javid and Jeremy Hunt have con­cerns and oth­ers, like Penny Mor­daunt, Es­ther McVey and Andrea Lead­som, have been con­sid­er­ing their po­si­tions.

Down­ing Street is con­cerned, not only about more min­is­te­rial and cabi­net res­ig­na­tions, but worry that if a deal is not done within the next fort­night, the whole timetable for push­ing reams of with­drawal leg­is­la­tion through par­lia­ment be­fore 29 March next year, will be­come too tight to man­age.

The deal also has to sat­isfy the DUP’s 10 MPs. The union­ists are deeply sus­pi­cious that what is be­ing cooked up would cre­ate the hard bor­der in the Ir­ish Sea that they were promised would never be es­tab­lished as a re­sult of Brexit and which they can­not ac­cept as it would sep­a­rate North­ern Ire­land in a fun­da­men­tal way from the rest of the UK.

The Tory whips know that any par­lia­men­tary vote on a Brexit deal will be too close to call. As re­sult, they have been court­ing the sup­port of Labour MPs in Leave con­stituen­cies who they think might back a half-de­cent deal, not least be­cause their con­stituents are ut­terly fed up with wait­ing for the Brexit they voted for more than two years ago.

Brexit splits Labour, ar­guably, as deeply as the Tories. In ad­di­tion to a hand­ful of ar­dent Labour Brex­iters such as Kate Hoey and Gra­ham Stringer, who look cer­tain to back May’s deal to get the UK out be­cause that is what they have long wanted, there are a dozen or so oth­ers who may well be tempted to defy their own party whip and sup­port the prime min­is­ter.

One is Gareth Snell, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Cen­tral, which voted 70:30 to leave. On Fri­day, in the cen­tre of his con­stituency, the pre­dom­i­nant view of vot­ers was that MPs should hurry up with Brexit.

Sit­ting in the Pot­ter­ies Pantry in the cen­tre of Stoke on Fri­day, Paul Walker, a cleaner, said he was fed up with talk of de­lays and sec­ond ref­er­en­dums, be­cause the coun­try had huge prob­lems with im­mi­gra­tion that Brexit would help to sort out. “Just get on with it,” he said. “If we have an­other vote, there will be ri­ots. Of all the prom­ises they break, this would be the big­gest of all.”

Snell will wait to see the deal on of­fer but says it is not out of the ques­tion that he could vote for what is put for­ward. “If the PM comes back with a cus­toms deal that pro­tects man­u­fac­tur­ing and puts us on course for a proper trade deal, I think we should look at that be­cause I am not sure we can get a bet­ter deal by 29 March next year.”

In an­other sign of Labour divi­sions, Jeremy Cor­byn, him­self a long-time critic of the EU, was com­ing un­der heavy crit­i­cism from Re­main­ers in his own party af­ter ap­pear­ing to close off the op­tion of a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum that might keep the UK in the EU.

Asked yes­ter­day if he could agree with John­son’s call for a new ref­er­en­dum, backed by many of his own Re­main MPs, Cor­byn said: “Not re­ally, no. The ref­er­en­dum took place. The is­sue now has to be how we bring peo­ple to­gether, bring peo­ple to­gether around the prin­ci­ples of our econ­omy, our rights and that we don’t turn this coun­try into some kind of off­shore tax haven on the lines that Donald Trump might want us to.”

As more than two years of Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions near an end, Tories, Labour and the coun­try seem more hope­lessly di­vided, and in many cases, more un­sure than ever.

Back in Or­p­ing­ton, Jo John­son’s con­stituents have taken note and are think­ing hard about the stand their MP has taken. Frances, 72, says: “I don’t know what I think any more. My hus­band and I both voted to leave be­cause we don’t want to be ruled by Brus­sels. And I’m strongly against a Euro­pean army. But I heard Jo John­son re­signed over Brexit, and it seems to me that it might come to an­other ref­er­en­dum be­cause there’s no other way to re­solve things. Theresa May is res­o­lutely push­ing on with what­ever she wants to do re­gard­less.

“If we do have an­other ref­er­en­dum, I’m not sure what I would vote for this time. The sit­u­a­tion is so un­sta­ble, and I just want my chil­dren and grand­chil­dren to have what is best for them.”

Pho­to­graph of the John­son fam­ily by David M Benett/Getty Im­ages

Pho­to­graph by Eleni Courea

ABOVEThe Con­ser­va­tive As­so­ci­a­tion in Jo John­son’s Or­p­ing­ton seat.

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