Jo Johnson: My Brexit resignation was a revolutionary act

17 November 2018

9:00 AM

17 November 2018

9:00 AM

Jacob Rees-Mogg observed that my resignation last week was ‘the “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment in the Brexit process’. If this is right, that makes me the child, too young to understand the importance of maintaining pretences, who blurts out before the embarrassed townsfolk that the emperor is naked. I’ve been surprised by the noisy reaction to my departure from the middle ranks of the government. The video I made in my office setting out my reasons for going had two million views in two days. Maybe this is an example of Orwell’s dictum that in a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

The deceit is that we’re making a success of Brexit. 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. Worse still, there is no real clarity about how this situation will ever end. The proposed Withdrawal Agreement parks many of the biggest issues about our future relationship with Europe into a boundless transitionary period. This is a con: there is no evidence that the kind of Brexit that we’ve failed to negotiate while we are still members can be magically agreed on once we’ve lost our seat at the table.

The ‘deal’ the PM is now finalising in Brussels and across Whitehall makes Brexit an entirely self-defeating and pointless exercise. Will we be able to do worthwhile trade deals with third countries? No. Could we turn ourselves into a low regulation tiger economy? No. Will we ‘take back control’? No, we cede control to the other European countries that will determine the rules governing huge swathes of our economy. When we were told Brexit meant taking back powers for Parliament, no one said to my constituents that this meant the French parliament and the German parliament, not our own. This is an utterly abject and shameful national humiliation. And that’s why I resigned.

So great to see an MP putting country before party, some people have said to me. Actually, it’s both party and country, because if the Tories allow this deal to become the basis of a new relationship with the EU, it’s in trouble. Others have different views about how to extract ourselves from the hole No. 10 is digging. EEA this, EFTA that. Norway. Canada. Whatever. Brexit is at risk of becoming a parlour game, in which we fantasise about ways of having our cake and eating it. The reality is, the PM has done her best to manage the trade-off between restoring powers to Westminster and maintaining privileged access to our most important market but her deal is a turkey.

Remember Brexit means Brexit? Brexit now means slavery, according to Jacob. Put that on the bus. Staunch Brexiteers, including my brother Boris, are publicly admitting we’d be better off staying in the EU than becoming a vassal state. Proceeding on this basis is an act of collective madness. One telling sign is that the government never argues the ‘deal’ is better than our current membership. The PM knows she cannot honestly make that claim and, sensibly, declines to do so. The only comparison she ventures is that it is better than having to turn the Garden of England into a lorry park, trashing manufacturing supply chains and stockpiling food and medicines by quitting without a deal. That’s a low bar. Time to allow the people the final say on whether they still want to leave the EU now we know the deal that’s on offer.

How do you know you’re no longer a minister? You get in a car and it doesn’t move, goes Peter Lilley’s old gag. My family knew something was up when the lovely Department for Transport driver knocked on our front door for the second time in half an hour and said he was collecting the red box full of ministerial papers he’d delivered minutes previously. I also enjoyed the instantaneous deletion of my wonderful policy adviser’s entire email system from her smartphone while she was in the middle of sending a message. I’ll miss the department’s fantastic officials most.

The person this country misses most is Jeremy Heywood. I was lucky to learn from him during the two years I ran the No. 10 Policy Unit ahead of the 2015 election. He sent me a nice note after our manifesto came out, welcoming that it had recognised Britain’s ‘impartial, professional and highly capable civil service [was] admired around the world and one of our nation’s strengths’. The civil service is now stretched to its limits by Brexit, to the detriment of our ability to tackle the challenges we face: a housing crisis, poor social mobility, an ageing society and so on. A great man.

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