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Jo Johnson resigns: Minister quits in protest and demands new Brexit referendum

Transport minister condemns Theresa May's 'con' and says: 'The democratic thing to do is to give the public the final say'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Friday 09 November 2018 16:56 GMT
Jo Johnson resigns from government over Brexit and calls for second referendum

Jo Johnson dramatically quit as transport minister, branding Theresa May’s Brexit plan a “con” and demanding a Final Say referendum to let the public decide.

The brother of Boris Johnson – a Remain supporter – described the prime minister’s negotiations as a “failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis”.

In a devastating indictment of Ms May’s strategy, he accused her of planning to trap the UK in a “boundless transitionary period” for years to come, with key controversies undecided.

Warning Britain “stands on the brink of the greatest crisis since the Second World War”, Mr Johnson added: “The democratic thing to do is to give the public the final say.”

The call comes after the number of signatures on The Independent’s petition for a Final Say referendum cleared one million, after just three months.

The resignation was not immediately followed by any other ministerial walkouts, but was a serious blow to Ms May’s hopes of a smooth path to an agreement at home and abroad next week.

Worse, it came as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props the Tories up in parliament, stepped up its threats to vote against it over the Irish border “backstop”.

It accused the prime minister of betraying her promise not to sign a withdrawal deal that could open the door to a customs border in the Irish sea.

A leaked letter from Ms May said she would not allow a break-up of the UK customs territory to “come into force” – implying it would, nevertheless, be in the agreement.

Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, reacted angrily, saying: “No unionist would be able to support that.

“In other words, we [Northern Ireland] will have a different regulatory system from the rest of the United Kingdom, and essentially there's going to be a border down the Irish sea.”

In a lengthy article, Mr Johnson said it was “increasingly clear” that the withdrawal deal “will be a terrible mistake”, saying: “The choice being presented to the British people is no choice at all.

“The first option is the one the government is proposing: an agreement that will leave our country economically weakened, with no say in the EU rules it must follow and years of uncertainty for business.

“The second option is a no-deal Brexit that I know as a transport minister will inflict untold damage on our nation.

“To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis.”

Mr Johnson became the ninth Tory MP to back a fresh referendum. He wrote: “Given that the reality of Brexit has turned out to be so far from what was once promised, the democratic thing to do is to give the public the final say.

“This would not be about rerunning the 2016 referendum, but about asking people whether they want to go ahead with Brexit now that we know the deal that is actually available to us, whether we should leave without any deal at all or whether people on balance would rather stick with the deal we already have inside the European Union.”

The resignation immediately drew praise from Boris Johnson – even though the pair walked out of the government from opposite sides of the Brexit controversy.

“Boundless admiration as ever for my brother Jo,” the former foreign secretary tweeted. “We may not have agreed about Brexit but we are united in dismay at the intellectually and politically indefensible of the UK position.”

Conservative Party supporters of a Final Say referendum were quick to react. Heidi Allen tweeted: “Hats off to @JoJohnsonUK , putting his country first. If we don’t know what our future trade deal with the EU will look like, MPs shouldn’t support it.”

Anna Soubry tweeted: “Huge respect for @JoJohnsonUK. It’s tough resigning from a ministerial post, he’s done the right thing. Now is the time for people to stand up for what they believe in or we will sleepwalk to a #Brexit disaster.

And Justine Greening said: “Well done to @JoJohnsonUK on standing up for what he believes in. He was a fantastic minister to work with whilst we were at the DfE. It’s a sad loss for Gvt, but Brexit is above party politics.”

Jenny Chapman, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister, said Mr Johnson was the 18th minister to quit Ms May’s government, adding: “She has lost all authority and is incapable of negotiating a Brexit deal within her own party, let alone with the EU.”

Downing Street issued a short, icy statement, saying: “The referendum in 2016 was the biggest democratic exercise in this country’s history.

“We will not under any circumstances have a second referendum. The prime minister thanks Jo Johnson for his work in government.”

The cabinet is still expected to meet on Monday or Tuesday next week, to agree the deal – but only after a weekend of continued negotiations in Brussels and with No 10 braced for further resignations.

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