Until Friday, Jo Johnson was a man eternally in the shadows. Boris and Rachel’s brother, Stanley’s son, and more recently, Amelia’s husband (his wife, Amelia Gentleman, is the acclaimed Guardian reporter who broke the Windrush scandal earlier this year). Although having held a number of notable ministerial posts since 2014, the Orpington MP has remained largely under the radar, his most well-known contribution to public life being his ghost authorship of the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto. An unknown quantity, you might say.
And so it seems, to Theresa May too. His resignation late Friday afternoon came as a complete shock to No 10, whose recent defection preparations have focussed on the ‘other’ side: prominent leavers in the Cabinet, including Penny Mordaunt and Esther McVey, rather than tacit and, up to now, loyal to the hilt remainers like Johnson.
His decision is no doubt a brave and principled stand, not least considering his local Orpington Association voted heavily to leave. But it is one that was undoubtedly made a thousand times easier by the vacancy he leaves behind: Rail Minister – widely seen as the worst job in government right now (although Theresa May might have something to say about that).
It’s a role Johnson never looked comfortable in, nor is it one he wanted. A thankless, dull and technical brief that saw him bounced from one ‘Calamitous Chris’ Grayling cock-up to the next. A far cry from the cut and thrust of his previous Universities role, this was a job that was not only tarnishing his reputation, but also damaging any future ambitions he might have.
What’s more, his South East London constituency is one of those worst affected by Britain’s burgeoning rail crisis. With passenger disquiet growing, including in Orpington itself, and the failing local franchise, Southeastern, looking set to be renewed over the coming weeks, Johnson was being forced to defend to his constituents the indefensible. Now, it seems, was a good time to pack his bags. A departure from Horseferry Road was inevitable. It was just a matter of how and when.
Taken with his well-known pro-remain credentials, No 10 should have seen this resignation coming. How much their complacency will cost them remains unclear, and largely depends on whether it sets in train (no pun intended) further exits from government. However, judging by today’s exclusive interview with the Evening Standard, in which Johnson accuses May of ‘calculated deceit’, he’s got no intention of making life easy for her.
The experience he brings from his previous roles in government, in which he oversaw some of the areas expected to be worst affected by a no deal Brexit, certainly add real gravity to the stark warnings laid out in his resignation. What is for sure, the Prime Minister’s forthcoming sales pitch just got a whole lot harder. Pressure on both her and her deal is at its peak, and with no working majority, and the DUP feeling mutinous, the chances of getting any agreement through Parliament are looking increasingly slim.
So much for the threat posed by Johnson the Elder. For now, momentarily, eyes remain on Johnson the Younger.