The Government’s retreat over Brexit continued yesterday as Boris Johnson was dealt a damaging and personal blow by his own brother, who quit the Government over his differences on the EU.
Jo Johnson resigned as universities minister with a post on Twitter, saying he was “torn between family loyalty and the national interest” and blaming “unresolvable tension”.
It came as the Government was forced into a humiliating climbdown over legislation to block a no-deal Brexit, accepting that it would have to pass in order for opposition parties to consider allowing the snap general election Mr Johnson wants.
In a speech billed by Downing Street as the start of campaigning in an election that the Government does not have the votes to call, the Prime Minister said he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than extend the UK’s Brexit deadline beyond 31 October to avoid a no-deal.
Mr Johnson will visit the north-east of Scotland today to continue his campaign tour, highlighting support for farmers and £1.2 billion in new funds through the Barnett formula from a pre-election budget give-away announced this week.
But his attempt to build momentum for a snap vote was brutally undermined by the surprising resignation of his brother, amid growing disquiet in the Tory ranks at a purge of moderate MPs against a no-deal Brexit. Downing Street aides and ministerial colleagues had no idea about Jo Johnson’s decision before he announced it on Twitter, although it was reported that the brothers had spoken by telephone on Wednesday night.
He tweeted: “It’s been an honour to represent Orpington for nine years and to serve as a minister under three PMs.
“In recent weeks I’ve been torn between family loyalty and the national interest – it’s an unresolvable tension and time for others to take on my roles as MP and minister.” He ended his message: “#overandout”.
The Prime Minister’s younger brother quit Theresa May’s cabinet last November after serving as Minister for London, claiming her Brexit deal represented a choice between “vassalage and chaos”.
Following his speech at a police training academy in Yorkshire, the Prime Minister was challenged over his brother’s resignation.
Asked why the public should trust him if his own family could not, Mr Johnson said his brother “does not agree with me about the European Union because it’s an issue that obviously divides families and divides everybody”.
The Government said it would try again to call a snap election in another Commons vote on Monday, after MPs rejected a motion under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act by 298 to 56 on Wednesday night, the third major defeat for Mr Johnson in the first three votes of his premiership.
Opposition parties have ruled out going to the polls until a no-deal Brexit is stopped.
Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg said that legislation introduced by Labour MP Hilary Benn and rushed through the Commons on Wednesday would be allowed to progress through the House of Lords before a controversial order to suspend Parliament comes into effect.
In the early hours of yesterday, the Government lifted a threat to try to filibuster the bill by attaching more than 90 amendments to a motion setting out the timetable for debate.
Mr Rees-Mogg signalled that the prorogation of Parliament could now be delayed until later next week in order to allow peers enough time to debate and pass the bill, which orders the Government to seek a Brexit extension if a negotiated deal is not in place.
“The House will not adjourn until Royal Assent has been received to all acts,” the Leader of the House told MPs.
Speaking in Yorkshire, Mr Johnson again called on Labour to back a snap election to break the Brexit deadlock.
He said: “I really don’t see how we can have a situation where the British ability to negotiate is absolutely torpedoed by Parliament in this way, with powers of the British people handed over to Brussels so we can be kept incarcerated in the EU without that actually being put to the people in the form of a vote.”
Earlier, a Number 10 spokesman said: “It is clear the only action is to go back to the people and give them the opportunity to decide what they want: Boris to go to Brussels and get a deal or leave without one on October 31, or Jeremy Corbyn arriving in Brussels with his surrender bill begging for more delay, more dither and accepting whatever terms Brussels imposes over our nation.”
Court challenges to the legality of proroguing Parliament are under way in London and Edinburgh, and documents released by the courts showed Johnson was less sanguine in private about the prospects of agreeing a deal with the EU.
The documents showed that during a Cabinet conference call on 28 July, Mr Johnson told his colleagues: “Whilst there was a good chance that a deal could be secured, there was also a high chance that it could not.”
Meanwhile the fallout continued from Mr Johnson’s decision to remove the Tory whip from 21 MPs, including former chancellors Philip Hammond and Kenneth Clarke, after they rebelled over the plan to block a no-deal Brexit.
Cabinet ministers raised concerns directly with Mr Johnson, and the One Nation group of Conservatives, which represents nearly 100 MPs, called for their 21 colleagues to be reinstated.
Chancellor Sajid Javid became the most senior figure to put pressure on Mr Johnson, saying he was “saddened” by the decision.
In Brussels, frustration about the Prime Minister’s approach to seeking a Brexit deal was illustrated by reports that chief negotiator Michel Barnier claimed there is “a state of paralysis” in talks with the UK.