Mild-mannered Jo Johnson’s resignation from the UK Government has caused the biggest Brexit headache, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis
Imagine being Jo Johnson. Quiet, unassuming, keeps his opinions to himself for the most part. Competent and respected without appearing overly ambitious or attention-seeking. It can be lonely, life as the black sheep of the family.
Whether or not he felt isolated before, Johnson’s resignation as transport minister, describing Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations as a “calculated deceit of the British people”, has brought him support as well as notoriety.
Fellow Remainers rallied to his call for a fresh referendum on Brexit, while Brexiteers – including the other Johnson brother – praised him for his attack on the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan.
The broad support for the black sheep of the Johnson family shows why Downing Street is growing increasingly worried about its ability to get any Brexit deal through parliament, even if it can reach one in Brussels.
It’s been said before, but time really is running out – not to get a deal, but to get one before companies and government departments are forced to start activating no-deal plans, and with enough time to hold a vote in the Commons before Christmas. Leaving it until the new year can only make the parliamentary process more chaotic and harder for government whips to control.
Whereas once support for a so-called People’s Vote on the Brexit deal was a niche and unfashionable pursuit, the fact it has inspired a Conservative government minister to put the brakes on his career shows how much momentum the idea has gained.
They have yet to explain how they can bring about a second EU referendum, but MPs backing a People’s Vote are growing in confidence. They believe the offer of a rethink on Brexit has captured the public imagination and that pressure for a public vote on whatever May brings back from Brussels will become irresistible.
More significantly, on the Tory benches they represent around a dozen votes the Prime Minister can no longer rely on to get a deal through parliament.
Meanwhile, as negotiators desperately try and thrash out an agreement in Brussels, the willingness of Brexiteers to praise a fellow Tory who is actually willing to stop Brexit is a bigger turnaround. It isn’t hard to see why they’re so unhappy: the past few weeks has seen the return to prominence of the idea of a ‘common rulebook’, as the UK seeks to avoid one form of Irish border backstop that keeps Northern Ireland in the EU single market, by pursuing one that keeps the UK in the customs union.
As Brussels has again spelt out, that means the UK retaining EU regulations on goods, environmental protections, fishing quotas and even state aid, with the European Court of Justice acting as the final arbiter in any disputes. And since the backstop could cover an indefinite period until the UK secures a trade deal with the EU, that could extend beyond the transition period currently set at 21 months.
Meanwhile, relations between the DUP and Downing Street appear to be at an all-time low, with Arlene Foster locked in an arms race with her MPs at Westminster to appear tougher on the idea of different regulations applying to Northern Ireland after Brexit.
And with Brussels now pushing for European fishermen to get automatic access to the UK’s waters, the support of Scottish Conservatives for the deal must be in the balance.
David Mundell has already let it be known that he would resign if the UK stays in the Common Fisheries Policy beyond the transition phase. The next-worst outcome as far as fishing interests are concerned is to have the UK’s sovereignty as a coastal state traded away before the ink is even on the Brexit deal. These will be nervous days in Dover House.
There are, in short, too many competing interests ranged against the deal that May is pursuing.
As far as Downing Street is concerned, too many of the wrong people are cheering Johnson’s resignation. It may be out of character, but he could prove to be the most troublesome member of the Johnson family.