Theresa May and Jo Johnson didn’t get on. She inherited him as Universities Minister from David Cameron, who had previously appointed him head of the Policy Unit and Policy Board, during the run-up to the 2015 election. (It would thus have been Johnson who first supervised a form of words committing the Party to the EU referendum.) As both a Cameroon and a friend of George Osborne, Johnson – a devout Remainer, unlike his brother – was the real Johnson on the rise.
He is a migration liberal, didn’t care who knew it, and clashed with Downing Street over students and the immigration system. So the Prime Minister shunted him off to Transport – in effect a demotion – where he didn’t hit it off with Chris Grayling. Johnson has now departed the Government, but was going nowhere.
This isn’t to suggest that his resignation was driven by thwarted ambition, but context is always important. Now that it has been given, it is essential to emphasise that Johnson, like his father and sister, is a believer in the European project. This highly intelligent, able, deeply civilised man is a true citizen of the world, a status for which his experience as a former Financial Times leader writer also qualifies him.
There is a touch of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact about this resignation. Boris Johnson is a Leaver. Jo Johnson is a Remainer. But they bond in their view of the outline deal that is taking shape. The heart of the latter’s fluent resignation letter is a sentence that the former might have written: “William Hague once described the goal of Conservative policy as being ‘in Europe, but not run by Europe’. The government’s proposals will see us out of Europe, yet run by Europe, bound by rules which we will have lost a hand in shaping.”
He goes on to reference Johnson senior: “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.”
We know that ERG Brexiteers and some others are poised to vote against any deal in the form taking shape. ConservativeHome has had its first squint at the numbers this afternoon. We believe there is a floor of at least 25 and a ceiling of over 60 (though our best guess at present is that the total is nearer the lower estimate).
If former Remainers, such as Jo Johnson, join these committed Leavers in the lobbies, the Prime Minister will face a war on two fronts. Heidi Allen has piled in on Twitter, saying that “if we don’t know what our future trade deal with the EU will look like, MPs shouldn’t support it. So has Anna Soubry.
Surely, you will object, neither these MPs nor Johnson prefer the prospect of No Deal to May’s Deal? This takes us to the crunch. ” I reject this false choice between the PM’s deal and “no deal” chaos,” writes Johnson. “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.” Soubry and Allen agree.
Here, then, is a new nightmare for the Prime Minister, as she grapples with the DUP over her proposals. On the one side, a Johnson advances on her, proposing No Deal if necessary. From the other comes another Johnson, championing a second referendum. We leave our readers to decide which is Ribbentrop and which Molotov, but there can be no doubt about the identity of the corpse.