Theresa May’s hopes of delivering a Brexit deal suffered multiple blows on Friday, as the pro-European transport minister Jo Johnson quit the government, warning that Britain was standing “on the brink of the greatest crisis” since the second world war.
Mr Johnson said he and his brother — the leading Euroceptic Boris Johnson — were united in their dismay at the prime minister’s handling of Brexit, which he argued now left the UK facing a choice between “vassalage and chaos”.
He quit to champion a second EU referendum. His resignation raised the spectre of Mrs May facing a fight on two fronts, with both Europhile and Eurosceptic Conservative MPs mobilising to oppose the compromise Brexit deal she is trying to wrap up in Brussels.
Adding to Mrs May’s woes, the Democratic Unionist Party — who she relies on for a parliamentary majority — claimed the prime minister was about to “betray” Northern Ireland by agreeing to carve up the UK as part of a Brexit deal with Brussels.
Mrs May, attending armistice centenary events in Belgium and France, also received reports from Brussels that the Brexit negotiations had also become bogged down over the vexed question of how to avoid the return to a hard border in Northern Ireland through a so-called backstop arrangement.
“Things are deadlocked,” said one well-placed government official. “Talks haven’t proceeded as we would have wanted. It looks like things are going down to the wire.”
Although Mrs May is expected to hold calls with senior ministers over the weekend, her allies played down the likelihood of a cabinet meeting early next week to rubber stamp a withdrawal treaty. “There isn’t much to discuss,” said one.
While Mrs May’s chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins will carry on with talks in Brussels on Saturday, they are being overshadowed by fears in Downing Street that it may prove impossible to secure parliamentary approval for a withdrawal treaty.
Mr Johnson, a former Financial Times journalist, launched a lacerating attack on the prime minister in his resignation statement, in which he accused her of “a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis”.
Referring to his brother Boris, who quit as foreign secretary in July over Mrs May’s compromise Brexit strategy, he said: “If these negotiations have achieved little else, they have at least united us in fraternal dismay.”
“Boundless admiration as ever for my brother Jo,” tweeted Mr Johnson. “We may not have agreed about Brexit but we are united in dismay at the intellectually and politically indefensible of the UK position.”
Jo Johnson’s resignation will raise pressure on Mrs May to put any Brexit deal to a so-called “People’s Vote”, but the prime minister’s spokesman said bluntly: “We will not under any circumstances have a second referendum.”
The more immediate problem for Mrs May is securing a Commons majority for the withdrawal treaty she hopes to conclude next week, given the growing criticism from all sides about the proposed agreement.
Mr Johnson is one of nine Europhile Conservative MPs who have so far backed a second referendum. The People’s Vote campaign group said it was speaking to four other Tory ministers who also support a plebiscite.
The possibility of Europhile Tories joining forces with 20 or more Eurosceptics to oppose Mrs May’s Brexit deal is causing concern inside Downing Street.
Mrs May has a working Commons majority of just 13 and that includes the support of 10 DUP MPs. The unionists have railed against any Brexit deal that includes an EU “backstop to the backstop” arrangement for Northern Ireland that would put a customs border in the Irish Sea.
Arlene Foster, DUP leader, said the idea set “alarm bells ringing” in Northern Ireland, while Sammy Wilson, the party’s Brexit spokesman, said Mrs May looked set to “betray” the region. However the DUP has not yet said it will vote against any Brexit deal finalised by the prime minister.
In a further setback for Mrs May, Scottish Conservative MPs vowed to vote against any deal that allowed EU fishermen to retain their current access to British waters beyond December 2020, when a Brexit transition period is due to end.
Mrs May hopes to push a Brexit deal through the Commons before Christmas, but any sizeable rebellion by Conservative or DUP MPs risks a defeat that could end her premiership.
If she did lose such a Commons vote then Mrs May — or her successor — would face calls to hold a second referendum. Mr Johnson said it should provide voters with three choices: to endorse a Brexit deal, to leave without an agreement or to remain in the EU on current terms.
However, any Tory prime minister who tried to legislate to hold a referendum that might reverse Brexit would likely plunge the Conservatives into a civil war, potentially heralding a lasting split in the party.