The post of UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, with its cabinet attendee rank, is an attractive position for up-and-coming politicians, not least because it is also in charge of the “sexy” subject of space – 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, brother of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who resigned just weeks after taking up a post he had previously held for a time in the May administration.
Jo Johnson was a noted “Remainer” in the referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union (EU). As such, he was under considerable pressure when he took the job. Then Boris Johnson controversially sought the Queen’s ascent to prorogue (suspend) parliament for five weeks ahead of 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 the perceived rush to a “no deal” Brexit, voting against the government, that Jo Johnson found he could finally no longer support his brother’s administration.
This is not the first time that a space minister has resigned over Brexit. Johnson’s immediate predecessor Chris Skidmore was reshuffled out of the post, but before that Sam Gyimah resigned over his opposition to Brexit. He wanted a second referendum on the issue (Update on 15 Sept: Gyimah has joined the Liberal Democrats). Gyimah got the position after Jo Johnson was moved by Prime Minister Theresa May to the Ministry of Transport.
Update on 8 September 2019: Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd – another “Remainer” – 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 for the UK Space Conference in Newport, Wales.
Comment 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 not have taken a role in the Brexit-devoted, Boris Johnson-led administration. Jo Johnson was in a similar position.
Probably noting that the space industry was also strongly in favour of remaining in the EU, albeit with some reservations about its interference with ESA, Johnson concluded that family loyalty had to come second to what was – in his view – best for the country.
The removal of his fraternal support was especially wounding to Boris Johnson who was already under fire for his “undemocratic” use of the prorogue procedure and his “purge” of “Remainer” MPs. Critics accused Boris Johnson, who famously venerated Churchill in a biography, of acting more like Hitler.
Whether Boris Johnson is proven to be a “dictator” or not, at the very least he appears to have been badly advised by political strategist Dominic Cummings. Previously derided for his Machiavellian nature and bullying style, and for his NASA Apollo project-inspired “mission control” online dashboard system, Cummings has now received strong criticism for getting Johnson’s Brexit and electoral strategy so apparently wrong.
The Conservative government has lost its majority and risks losing the political “middle ground” via its purge of Remainer moderates. These Whip-less and about-to-be deselected MPs include some popular senior Conservative politicians, among them former Chancellors Ken Clarke and Phil Hammond and Sir Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson.
If Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings had focused on triggering a General Election at an earlier stage, the chances were that the Conservatives would have won. Immediately after Johnson became Prime Minister opinion polls showed that, despite a perceived leftwards sea-change in public opinion, Johnson commanded much greater electoral support than the unpopular Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Now there is considerable doubt about whether Johnson could win a majority: split parties rarely win elections and his anti-constitutional actions (now ruled illegal by the Supreme Court) may have caused a loss of support among those who want to maintain the basic norms of freedom and democracy.
While the Conservative party is likely to remain the largest via the “first past the post” voting system, it may not win enough seats 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.
Post Script: It has been reported that Boris Johnson is threatening to ignore or bypass any Brexit delay legislation. If he does so, he could theoretically be jailed. As a famously adept writer and classics scholar, he would then have time to write his own version of Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) – probably in Ancient Greek. 🙂