Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to kick off what is in effect an election campaign casting U.K. Parliament as the enemy of Brexit was overshadowed on Thursday when his younger brother quit the government, citing the national interest.
As the United Kingdom spins towards an election, Brexit remains up in the air more than three years after Britons voted to leave the bloc in a 2016 referendum. Options range from a turbulent ‘no-deal’ exit to abandoning the whole endeavour.
Ahead of a speech in northern England where the prime minister was expected to begin an informal election campaign, Jo Johnson resigned as a junior business minister and said he was stepping down as a lawmaker for their Conservative Party.
“In recent weeks I’ve been torn between family loyalty and the national interest — it’s an unresolvable tension & time for others to take on my roles,” he tweeted.
The 47-year-old has been in Parliament since 2010, serving in several ministerial roles. He voted for Remain in 2016 and had previously expressed backing for a second referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union, but nevertheless accepted a job as a junior minister in the business and education departments when his brother became prime minister.
“The prime minister would like to thank Jo Johnson for his service,” a spokesperson from Johnson’s office said in a statement.
“He has been a brilliant, talented minister and a fantastic MP. The PM, as both a politician and brother, understands this will not have been an easy matter for Jo.”
The Johnson family itself is notoriously split over Brexit with his sister Rachel having represented different parties opposed to Brexit, and his father Stanley being a committed europhile and former European Commission official.
The opposition Labour Party seized on the resignation, saying it underlined a lack of trust in the prime minister.
“Boris Johnson poses such a threat that even his own brother doesn’t trust him,” said Labour education spokesperson Angela Rayner.
The move comes in a frenetic week for the older brother.
After wresting control of the lower house of Parliament on Wednesday, an alliance of opposition parties and rebels expelled from Johnson’s Conservative party voted to force him to seek a three-month delay to Brexit rather than leaving without a deal on Oct. 31, the date now set in law.
Since taking office in July, Boris Johnson has tried to corral the Conservative Party, which is openly fighting over Brexit, behind his strategy of leaving the European Union on Oct. 31 at all costs, with or without a deal.
On Tuesday, he expelled 21 Conservative lawmakers from the party for failing to back his Brexit strategy, including Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson, and two former finance ministers.
Labour wants election with no-deal prospect off table
Behind the sound and fury of the immediate crisis, an election now beckons for a polarized country.
The main choices on offer are Johnson’s insistence on leaving the EU on Oct. 31, come what may, and Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist vision, coupled with a promise of a fresh referendum with an option to stay in the EU.
Michael Gove, the British minister in charge of co-ordinating no-deal Brexit planning, dismissed the possibility speculated in the media, of Johnson triggering an election by more drastic means.
“I don’t think the prime minister has any intention of resigning. He was elected in a leadership election, in which I took part. He won that leadership election, he won the argument in that election,” said Gove,
The crisis has for three years overshadowed European Union affairs, eroded Britain’s reputation as a stable pillar of the West and seen sterling twitch in tune to the probability of a no-deal exit.
Asked if Brexit would happen on Oct. 31, Johnson’s belligerent senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, a focus of many departing Conservative lawmakers’ grievances, told Reuters: “Trust the people.”
A spokesperson for the prime minister said his speech would make the case that “it is now time for the people to decide after Parliament has failed them, so we can resolve this once and for all.
“Jeremy Corbyn continues not only to block Brexit but is now also stopping the people having their say by refusing a general election.”
The opposition Labour Party has cast Johnson’s language — including calling Corbyn a “chicken” — as pathetic, said he was trying to act like U.S. President Donald Trump and compared him to a toddler having a tantrum.
Against the dollar, the pound rose 0.7 per cent to $1.2337 U.S., after jumping 1.4 per cent on Wednesday on the sense that the prospect of a no-deal exit had receded.
Johnson, the face of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, has pushed for an election on Oct. 15, two weeks before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU, though opposition parties are debating which date they would accept.
“We are saying, yeah, bring on a general election, of course,” said John McDonnell, the Labour Party’s second most powerful man.
“We will ensure that happens after we have got the legislation to protect against a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. But we will consult and do it on at the date on which we will think will have maximum advantage against a ‘no-deal.'”
While sterling rose on Parliament’s bid to block a no-deal exit, an election before Brexit would allow him, if he won, to repeal the blocking bill, which was passed by 329-300 and then 327-299 in the House of Commons on Wednesday. The law is scheduled to pass the upper house, the Lords, by Friday evening.