The post of Minister of State for Universities and Science, which currently has cabinet “attendee” rank, is a very attractive position for up-and-coming politicians, not least because it is also in charge of the “sexy” subject of space which is now seen as increasingly important to the nation. And yet this government post has not had much luck in retaining its incumbents. Latest to go is Jo Johnson, the brother of the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has resigned just weeks after again taking up the post he previously held the role, for a time, in the May administration.
Jo Johnson was a noted “remainer” who wishes the United Kingdom will remain in the European Union (EU). As such, he was under considerable pressure even when he took the job. When Boris Johnson first made a highly controversial move get the Queen’s accent to prorogue (suspend) parliament for a long period in order to force Brexit – the UK’s departure from the EU (with no deal yet agreed) on 31 October. However, it was when 21 other Tory MPs were thrown out of the Conservative Party for opposing this rush to a “no deal” departure by voting against the government, that Jo Johnson found that he could no longer support his own brother’s administration.
This is not the first time that a space minister has resigned over Brexit. While Johnson’s immediate predecessor Chris Skidmore was reshuffled out of the post, before that Sam Gyimah resigned over his opposition to Brexit, wanting a second referendum on the issue (Update on 15 Sept: Gyimah has now joined the Liberal Democrats). Gyimah got the position after Jo Johnson had been moved by the then Prime MinisterTheresa May to the Ministry of Transport.
Update on 8 September 2019: The Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd – another “Remainer” – has now resigned from the Cabinet over her concerns that the government was not serious about seeking a deal with the EU. She also described the removal of her 21 fellow Tory MPs as an “act of political vandalism.”
Update on 11 September 2019: Chris Skidmore has again been appointed as the Minister of Universities and Science with responsibilities for Space. Skidmore joked on Twitter that it was time to get his lab coat out again. It was just in time as later on this month the UK Space Conference takes place in Newport, Wales.
Analysis by David Todd: The resignations of Amber Rudd and Jo Johnson were not entirely unpredictable. Amber Rudd has long been an opponent of a “hard leave” Brexit and some suggest that she should have not taken a role in the Brexit-devoted Boris Johnson-led administration in the first place. Meanwhile, Jo Johnson was in a similar position. He was already a “remainer”, and in representing the UK space industry he also had to represent its position in being, albeit with some reservations about the EU’s interference with ESA, strongly in favour of remaining in the EU. Jo Johnson’s resignation came after he concluded that family loyalty had to be second to what was best – in his view – for the country. This will be especially wounding to the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson who was already under considerable fire for his “undemocratic” use of a parliamentary suspension (“prorogue”) procedure to force Brexit, and for his “purge” of his own party’s “remainer” MPs. In doing so, Boris Johnson, who famously venerated Churchill in a biography, was accused of acting more like Hitler.
By a strange coincidence, a current BBC historical documentary has reminded viewers of how Adolf Hitler and the Nazis usurped Germany’s democracy in the early 1930s initially by perverting the German Reichstag’s own parliamentary procedures. This infamously included preventing an attempt by Germany President Von Hindenberg’s emissary to dissolve the Reichstag parliament by having its Speaker deliberately “turn a blind eye” to him. Of course, it helped that the Speaker involved was also one Herman Goering – Hitler’s Nazi confederate.
Whether Boris Johnson is proven to be a similar “dictator” or not, at the very least, he appears to have been badly advised, not least, by Johnson’s political strategist Dominic Cummings who has been accused of being Johnson’s Rasputin-like puppet-master. Spaceflight fan Cummings may have developed a NASA Apollo project-inspired “mission control” online dashboard system for Ministers involved in Brexit, however, it does not appear to be working. Not only has Cummings been derided for his Machiavellian nature and bullying style, he has also received strong criticism for getting Johnson’s Brexit and electoral strategy so apparently wrong.
Conservative government has now lost its majority, ceding control to the “anti-Brexit” (or at least “delay-Brexit”) parties within Parliament. It has also lost the voter-friendly political “middle ground” via its purge of its remainer moderates. These whipless and now about-to-be deselected MPs include some very popular senior Conservative politicians including two former Chancellors, Ken Clarke and Phil Hammond, as well as Sir Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s own grandson.
Comment by David Todd: If Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings had simply moved for a General Election at an earlier stage instead of trying to pull their undemocratic and probably illegal prorogue stroke (a Scottish court has since ruled that it was unlawful to prorogue Parliament for such a long time for political advantage), then the chances were that their Conservative side would have won it. For immediately after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister opinion polls showed that, despite a perceived leftwards sea-change in public opinion after years of austerity and due to the housing crisis, Johnson still commanded much greater electoral support (a YouGov opinion poll showed it to be fourteen percentage points higher) than the very unpopular Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Now there is considerable doubt whether Johnson can win a majority: split parties rarely win elections and his anti-constitutional actions have caused a loss of support in those who want to maintain the basic norms of freedom and democracy.
While the Conservatives are still likely to be the largest party via the current “first past the post” constituency voting system, it may not now win enough MPs to secure a majority. This could leave the way clear for a left-of-centre coalition government made up of Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Greens etc., which is likely to order a second Brexit referendum. There is some hope for those in fear of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government. Jeremy Corbyn himself could lose his own Islington seat to the hard-on-his-heals Liberal Democrats which would preclude him from becoming Prime Minister.
Post Script: The Daily Telegraph has reported that Boris Johnson is now threatening to ignore or bypass any Brexit delay law passed by the UK’s Parliament. If he does so, then he could theoretically be jailed. No doubt as a famously adept writer and classics scholar, Boris Johnson would then enough have time to write his own version of Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) – probably in Ancient Greek. 🙂