Orpington is half an hour’s train ride from London and has all the characteristics of a suburban market town: independent shops, traditional English cafes and pubs. A little way down the road from its train station, a half-timbered house hosts the local Conservative Association. An enormous Jo Johnson banner is hoisted on the lawn outside, and his face stares down at drivers heading further south into Kent. Despite that, and the fact that it is less than 24 hours since this particular Johnson quit the government and worsened the Brexit crisis engulfing Theresa May, many of his constituents on the tree-lined high street don’t recognise his name.
At Reku Zen, an Asian restaurant, Denislav Ivanov, 24, is mopping floors. He’s only heard of the other Tory MP called Johnson. “The guy with the hair has a brother and he’s anti-Brexit?” asks Ivanov, incredulous. He thinks Brexit will be bad for our economy, but having moved around Europe since he left Poland, he isn’t worried about his own status. “I speak Spanish, I’m young – I’ll move to Spain,” he says.
Some of those who did know their MP by name had also clocked his resignation on Friday. “I heard him warning that Brexit will make the traffic in Dover get a lot worse, because of customs checks,” says Frieda McClorey, 85, as she waits for her bus. “I think he did the right thing in resigning. I voted to remain, even though many of my friends voted to leave. I’m hoping there will be another referendum,” she says.
Across the street, Charlotte Drake, 29, is taking a break from work as a mentor for the National Citizenship Project. She, like a majority of people in Orpington, voted Leave. She was and remains concerned about immigration. But Drake now thinks the Leave campaign made a lot of false promises. “A lot of people are changing their minds,” she says – but stops short of revealing her own hand.
If Jo Johnson’s resignation has the effect intended then it will accelerate the switch of views that Drake has noticed in this corner of Kent. Despite all the deep and bitter divisions at Westminster and across the country, and successive resignations from her government (Jo Johnson was the sixth minister to quit specifically over Brexit), Theresa May has always hung on in the belief that, when it came to the crunch moment, when a deal was on offer that would take the UK out of the EU on 29 March next year, her party and the country would unite sufficiently behind her to allow a withdrawal agreement to pass through parliament. The country would rally behind her vision of Brexit.
But instead, as people become more aware of what leaving the EU entails, many MPs believe the reverse may be happening. This weekend, with time running out, Tory Remainers and Brexiters are increasingly uniting – but in the opposite way to what the prime minister had hoped. More and more are speaking out against what is on offer – from their different sides of the Brexit ideological divide. The Johnson family is split between Brexiter Boris and the Remainers in the tribe, his brother Jo, sister Rachel, and father Stanley. But they agree on one thing: that May’s deal would be an appalling one for the country, leaving the UK with a far worse arrangement than if it remained in the EU.
With Labour committed to voting against any deal that does not meet its six tests, and Tory hard Brexiters led by Jacob Rees-Mogg threatening to vote her deal down, May’s hopes of winning an “approval motion” in parliament would appear to be fading fast. Ominously, too, the 10 Democratic Unionist MPs who prop up May’s administration are saying they will reject anything that might create a hard border in the Irish Sea.
Yesterday, Jo Johnson encouraged other Tory ministers to follow him out of the government if they feel as he does. “I think this is so important that it’s up to MPs to take a stand. I’ve done so; if others feel that it’s right for them to do so, good on them,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “This is one of the most momentous questions we will ever face in our political careers. And everybody is thinking very hard about it.”
He acted, he said, because he felt a duty to his constituents in Orpington. The motorways through Kent would become a giant lorry park and the economic damage would be felt by everyone. “My priority is really just to do my bit as a now backbench MP to try and encourage the country to pause and reflect before we do something that is irrevocably stupid.” Calling for a new referendum, the former transport minister added: “My view is that this is so different from what was billed that it would be an absolute travesty if we do not go back to the people and ask them if they actually do want to exit the EU on this extraordinarily hopeless basis.”
Yesterday, the former education secretary, Justine Greening, added to the sense of a Tory party at war, tearing into May’s proposed deal and saying it would achieve the precise opposite to what Eurosceptics had always wanted – a return of sovereignty to the UK from the EU. “The parliamentary deadlock has been clear for some time,” Greening said. “It’s crucial now for parliament to vote down this plan, because it is the biggest giveaway of sovereignty in modern times. Instead, the government and parliament must recognise we should give people a final say on Brexit. Only they can break the deadlock and choose from the practical options for Britain’s future now on the table.”
The Tory MP and arch-Remainer Anna Soubry spent much of yesterday talking to people in her constituency of Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire, including some previous hardline Brexiters, and said she had noted a swing in opinion. “There are people who were unflinching Brexiters, the true believers, who are now saying that rather than have this ghastly agreement, which is neither fish nor fowl, and with all the economic damage that would follow, we should think again and give people a chance to reject it. What Jo Johnson has articulated is what more and more people have been beginning to feel – that we cannot go ahead with this as it not what anyone, whatever their original views were, wants.”
With more Tory Remainers and Leavers now opposing her, May’s task is daunting. Downing Street’s immediate task is to get her deeply split cabinet to unite around the final unresolved element of a potential deal with the EU: the legally complex issue of how to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit. Downing Street knows it is in a race against time. May is desperate to put a motion before the House of Commons before Christmas, in the hope that, somehow, it will pass. No 10 has pencilled in a cabinet meeting for early this week, probably on Tuesday. But disagreements remain among her most senior ministers over how the UK would exit from the so-called “backstop” agreement, under which the whole of the UK would remain in the EU customs union until a final UK-EU trade deal is struck. Several cabinet ministers are unhappy with what they fear will be fudged wording in the withdrawal agreement that fails to chart a clear path to exit the backstop. They want to see the full legal advice and want guarantees that the EU will not be able to prevent the UK breaking free from its system once and for all, so that it can strike its own trade deals.
Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt have concerns and others, like Penny Mordaunt, Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom, have been considering their positions.
Downing Street is concerned not only about more ministerial and cabinet resignations, but also that if a deal is not done within the next fortnight, the whole timetable for pushing reams of withdrawal legislation through parliament before 29 March next year, will become too tight to manage.
The deal also has to satisfy the DUP’s 10 MPs. The unionists are deeply suspicious that what is being cooked up would create the hard border in the Irish Sea that they were promised would never be established as a result of Brexit and which they cannot accept, as it would separate Northern Ireland in a fundamental way from the rest of the UK.
The Tory whips know that any parliamentary vote on a Brexit deal will be too close to call. As result, they have been courting the support of Labour MPs in Leave constituencies who they think might back a half-decent deal, not least because their constituents are utterly fed up with waiting for the Brexit they voted for more than two years ago.
Brexit splits Labour, arguably, as deeply as the Tories. In addition to a handful of ardent Labour Brexiters such as Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer, who look certain to back May’s deal to get the UK out because that is what they have long wanted, there are a dozen or so others who may well be tempted to defy their own party whip and support the prime minister.
One is Gareth Snell, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, which voted 70:30 to leave. On Friday, in the centre of his constituency, the predominant view of voters was that MPs should hurry up with Brexit.
Sitting in the Potteries Pantry in the centre of Stoke on Friday, Paul Walker, a cleaner, said he was fed up with talk of delays and second referendums, because the country had huge problems with immigration that Brexit would help to sort out. “Just get on with it,” he said. “If we have another vote, there will be riots. Of all the promises they break, this would be the biggest of all.”
Snell will wait to see the deal on offer but says it is not out of the question that he could vote for what is put forward. “If the PM comes back with a customs deal that protects manufacturing and puts us on course for a proper trade deal, I think we should look at that because I am not sure we can get a better deal by 29 March next year.”
In another sign of Labour divisions, Jeremy Corbyn, himself a long-time critic of the EU, was coming under heavy criticism from Remainers in his own party after appearing to close off the option of a second referendum that might keep the UK in the EU.
Asked yesterday if he could agree with Johnson’s call for a new referendum, backed by many of his own Remain MPs, Corbyn said: “Not really, no. The referendum took place. The issue now has to be how we bring people together, bring people together around the principles of our economy, our rights and that we don’t turn this country into some kind of offshore tax haven on the lines that Donald Trump might want us to.”
As more than two years of Brexit negotiations near an end, Tories, Labour and the country seem more hopelessly divided, and in many cases, more unsure than ever.
Back in Orpington, Jo Johnson’s constituents have taken note and are thinking hard about the stand their MP has taken. Frances, 72, says: “I don’t know what I think any more. My husband and I both voted to leave because we don’t want to be ruled by Brussels. And I’m strongly against a European army. But I heard Jo Johnson resigned over Brexit, and it seems to me that it might come to another referendum because there’s no other way to resolve things. Theresa May is resolutely pushing on with whatever she wants to do regardless.
“If we do have another referendum, I’m not sure what I would vote for this time. The situation is so unstable, and I just want my children and grandchildren to have what is best for them.”
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