Not since Ed Miliband metaphorically knifed his brother David in the back, snatching the Labour leadership from his grasp, has there been such a public display of fraternal political disharmony. Though Jo Johnson was careful not to take too many potshots at Boris, his resignation last week as a minister and demand for a second EU referendum could scarcely have been a more powerful indictment of the former Foreign Secretary’s reckless egotism or a clearer attempt to separate himself from his elder sibling.
In this, he was successful: his explanation for his actions, set out in a lengthy blog post, possessed an integrity Boris wouldn’t recognise if it ran up to him in the street yelling: “This is the way you behave if you have an ounce of decency, you craven, self-entitled buffoon.”
The gulf between the two was reinforced when another Johnson – their sister Rachel – tweeted: “Am hugely proud of my honourable and principled brother, Jo, who has put the interests of the country ahead of his political career.” The “as opposed to my unprincipled brother, Boris, who shafted the country, then legged it” addendum was tacit, but everyone understood it, nonetheless.
Jo’s blog post is a clear-eyed, if devastating analysis of the scale of the crisis facing the UK as a result of Brexit and of the failure of “statecraft” that brought us to this position. In it, the former transport minister says the “choice” being presented to the British people – between Theresa May’s fudge (which may not get through the Commons, even if Brussels accepts it) and a “no deal” Brexit – is a choice between “vassalage and chaos”.
Despite being a Remainer, Jo says he had hoped the government would make a success of Brexit, delivering the vision of a post-EU Britain voters were promised before the referendum. Now, however, he understands that the notion of a great nation freed from the shackles of Brussels was a mass delusion, and believes the country must be given another chance to vote on the reality.
“To those who say that is an affront to democracy given the 2016 result, I ask this: ‘Is it more democratic to rely on a three-year-old vote based on what an idealised Brexit might offer, or to have a vote based on what we know it does actually entail?” he wrote.
Of course everything is relative. Before we get carried away by Jo Johnson’s clarity, let us remember that this is the man who lost his job as universities minister for appointing Toby Young – purveyor of misogynistic and homophobic tweets – to the board of a universities regulator.
Equally, the younger Johnson may have seen the light, but his epiphany is somewhat belated. Though others have been measuring the depth of the abyss at the edge of which we are hovering ever since the Leave campaign was victorious, it has taken the approaching Commons vote (and March deadline) to focus his mind.
Nevertheless, set beside Boris, Jo is a model of decorum. He stuck by the Prime Minister while she tried to deliver a Brexit neither of them wanted. And – at the point when sticking by her was no longer compatible with his conscience – he exited with dignity, eschewing the opportunity to make her the scapegoat for other people’s failings.
Compare his behaviour to that of his Big Bro, who hawked the country’s future for a shot at power, and, when it all went wrong, blamed everyone but himself. Boris is no keener on Theresa May’s plan than Jo, yet he would rather see the country plunged into darkness than offer the electorate the opportunity to record that they were sold a pup by a bunch of blaggers. It is difficult to believe they share the same gene pool.
Jo shines because he is surrounded by intellectual pygmies: people like Dominic Raab, who makes David “no notes” Davis look competent. You might have thought Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley had hit peak idiocy when she admitted she hadn’t known people in the Six Counties vote along constitutional lines. But Raab apparently has problems grasping the concept that Britain is an island. Last week, he revealed that, until recently, he did not fully appreciate the importance of the Dover-Calais crossing for UK trade. This is odd. After all, in June – a month before he replaced Davis as Brexit Secretary – it emerged the civil service had drawn up a Doomsday scenario of the pandemonium that would unfold in the event of no-deal Brexit. It included the prediction that the port of Dover would collapse on day one, that supermarkets in Scotland and Cornwall would run out of food within a couple of days and that hospitals would run out of vital supplies within a month.
But then you only have to watch footage of Raab failing to understand the basics at the first meeting of the Exiting The EU select committee back in 2016 to get a sense of his cerebral limitations. Then, Raab declared himself “jarred and bemused” by the idea that Brexit might create more rather than less bureaucracy. Sir Simon Fraser, former director-general, Europe and Globalisation, can be seen explaining it all to him with admirable if slightly strained patience. Like a teacher dealing with an academically challenged pupil, he finds concrete examples to make his points more digestible. Let’s look at what might happen if we were to leave the customs union, he says. One corollary of that might be that there would need to be new regulatory arrangements put in place and checks on goods crossing the border. This could potentially create a heavier bureaucratic burden. It’s no use, though; despite his best efforts Raab remains “bemused”.
With this inability to take in information, it’s no wonder we are where we are. The country is being led by politicians who struggle with the simplest political concepts. How could they ever have been relied upon to steer their way through the trickiest negotiations of our time?
Referenda used to be sneered at; ordinary people could not be expected to understand the ins and outs of complicated decisions. That’s what politicians were for. We voted them in because we trusted them to act responsibly on our behalf. But that requires them to be insightful, hard-working and with the best interests of the country at heart. No-one in the current cabinet is of this calibre.
On the 100th anniversary of the First World War Armistice, it seems fair to say: we may not be a nation of lions, but we are most assuredly being led by donkeys. And duplicitous donkeys at that.
Jo Johnson is right. Those donkeys – including Boris – sold us: “a false prospectus, a fantasy set of promises that have been shown up for what they were.” There is only one way to deal with this con trick democratically; and it is to give voters a second chance to have their say on the cold, hard truth.