Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Jo Johnson Conservative MP


SOPHY RIDGE: Now the Prime Minister says she doesn’t want a second referendum but there are reports out this morning that her de facto Deputy, David Lidington and her Chief of Staff, Gavin Barwell, have been discussing it. Well joining us now is the former Transport Secretary, Jo Johnson, who quit the government last month in order to campaign for another vote. Thanks for being with us.

JO JOHNSON: Morning.

SR: Theresa May has been pretty firm, hasn’t she, that she doesn’t think there should be another Brexit vote. Do you think she’ll get her way?

JO JOHNSON: Well the government is to bring its deal back to Parliament as soon as possible, ideally early next week. The government withdrew it summarily at the start of this week, has given no reason at all why it is not planning to bring it back next week. The Prime Minister was in Brussels last week trying to get the assurances and the changes to the deal that she’s been seeking, she has been met with a flat no. It’s now time for Parliament to move on, we need to get on with it and move this to a conclusion.

SR: Well it is pretty clear why they are not bringing it to the House, it’s because they’d lose it isn’t it?

JO JOHNSON: Yes, I mean it’s clear that the Prime Minister is now running the clock. Her strategy is to kick the can down the road but in my view that is completely unacceptable, we can’t be presented with two bad choices – her deal on the one hand which is flawed fundamentally and the chaos and disruption of no-deal. We’ve got to do better than that as a country and that’s why I think it’s really important we now go back to the people and ask them whether they want to proceed with Brexit on a negotiated basis that the Prime Minister is recommending or whether they want to reconsider.

SR: Well let’s talk about the possibility of a second referendum because there are reports out this morning, which I referred to in the introduction to the interview, that two of Theresa May’s closest allies have been sounding people out, have been effectively war gaming what would happen if there was a second referendum. Now Gavin Barwell, the Chief of Staff, has tweeted to say that he doesn’t want a second referendum, what’s your sense? Have you been having conversations with those two men?

JO JOHNSON: Well it is quite an appropriate thing to say he doesn’t want a second referendum, no one of course would want to have to reopen this question but the reality is that her deal is not going to be acceptable to Parliament and we are going to be presented with the alternative of crashing out which is also unacceptable to Parliament. In that situation we are going to need a Plan B and I think the best Plan B is to go back to the people and say we now know what Brexit is because we’ve spent two and a half years negotiating this deal. If you want this deal it is available and we can do Brexit on this basis but if you don’t, you have the option of staying in on our current terms.

SR: That’s what you think but I’d be interested to know whether that’s what the Cabinet thinks and whether that’s what the government thinks, have you had any conversations with people that made you think there is a shift towards a possibility of a second referendum?

JO JOHNSON: Well it’s now abundantly clear that her deal is not going to get through parliament, there have been no changes made to it in Brussels to make it more acceptable to MPs so there are conversations about, well what’s going to have to come next? And to my mind there are very few other options that are going to work.

SR: Who have those conversations happened between?

JO JOHNSON: Well MPs are talking to each other all the time and inevitably you are going to be talking to Cabinet Ministers as well so of course MPs are talking about what on earth we are going to do. We spent two and a half years negotiating a deal which is going to be completely unacceptable to parliament, we have to find a way through and to my mind going back to the people and asking them to give the final say on whether they want to do Brexit on this basis or not is the right way to go.

SR: So how many Members of Parliament do you think are going to be open to the idea of a second referendum?

JO JOHNSON: Well look, I don’t want to get into a numbers game, I think everything is fluid and I think the moment that she takes the plunge and brings her deal back to Parliament and sees it defeated, I think that will clarify thinking for a lot of MPs and Cabinet Ministers.

SR: Now you are pretty clear in your support for another vote, you were born and bred in London and you represent Orpington, a constituency in Greater London. Do you think you really understand why people outside of the capital voted to leave the EU and the deep sense of betrayal that many of those people would feel if that vote was ignored and you asked them to do it again?

JO JOHNSON: Well I think this is the big challenge, we need to understand the causes of Brexit and why people voted as they did and that includes people in my own constituency who voted for Leave. It is of course important that they are listened to and we get to treat the real causes of Brexit and I don't think leaving the EU is the answer. I think the fundamental point is that if we implement the Prime Minister’s deal that is going to be the ultimate betrayal of the people who voted to leave the European Union and the reason for that is it does not deliver on the promises of the 2016 referendum, it will not enable us to do trade deals of any meaningful nature, it will not enable us to take back control. On the contrary, we’re going to be ceding control over huge swathes of our economy and have no say at all in how they’re made. At the moment we are an equal participant in the structures of the EU, we will cease to be, we will be a passive rule taker on the outside and lastly, the people who advocated Brexit said we will have the ability to turn ourselves into a sort tiger economy on the edge of Europe – we’re not going to be able to do that under the deal she’s putting forward, the Prime Minister’s putting forward because we will be taking all the rules of the single market but we won’t have any say in how they’re made anymore. It’s a nonsense.

SR: So what do you think should be on the ballot paper if there was a second referendum? Because I’ll be honest with you, I’ve spoken to lots of people that advocate a second vote and I seem to be getting a different answer every time.

JO JOHNSON: Parliament will frame the question when it legislates for a referendum. To my mind you’ve got a few options which are obvious: you’ve got her deal, the Prime Minister’s deal, which has been negotiated, it’s a 585 page legal treaty with a 26 page waffly political declaration but at least it’s there; you’ve got the current arrangements within the EU so that’s Remain effectively and then I think the onus is on the Brexiteers who want a harder form of Brexit to define that for themselves. The onus should not be on people like me to define what hard Brexit is, if they want to advocate in Parliament for a WTO style relationship, fine, they can make the case in Parliament and get that question on the ballot paper as well but the onus should be on the hard Brexiteers after two and a half years to define what they actually mean. I think it tells you a lot about the lack of clarity and the lack of plan on the hard Brexit side that two and a half years into this whole project we still don’t actually have a clear answer from the hard Brexit team as to what they would actually like to see.

SR: I think some of them would argue that it would be leaving on WTO rules.

JO JOHNSON: But that means they are arguing for Super Canada, Canada Plus-Plus-Plus and they are not exactly the same, they are variants of each other but they’re not the same.

SR: Now the Prime Minister faced a confidence emotion in Parliament, how did you vote?

JO JOHNSON: I don’t comment on leadership. I took a decision when I entered Parliament in 2010 that I was never going to comment on leadership questions not least because people would assume I was bringing family issues into it. I don’t want to get dragged into any of that and I’m not going to start now.

SR: Okay but at the same time though, it is quite difficult to separate the Prime Minister from the policy, are you worried that she is not really listening enough to the concerns of Parliamentarians?

JO JOHNSON: Yes, I am worried, that’s why I think it is really important that she brings the debate back. We suspended a five day debate after three days, we’ve got to continue that debate next week on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday, have the vote on her deal so that we can all move on and then move on to the next step of this process which is to ask the public whether they want to go ahead and do Brexit on this negotiated basis that we’ve spent two and a half years preparing. If they want to do that, fine, we can go ahead with the Prime Minister’s deal and implement that but we can’t waste any more time, we’ve got precious little time left and the time for fantasy decisions, fantasy renegotiations of the package to get to Canada Plus-Plus-Plus or Norway Plus and all these different variations around that, that time has come and gone. We’ve got a deal on the table, it’s the only deal on the table and now is the time for Parliament to decide and then to put it back to the people for them to confirm whether they want to do Brexit on that basis or not.

SR: And you are saying Norway and Canada is fantasy, is the Prime Minister’s current deal a fantasy in that it won’t get through Parliament either?

JO JOHNSON: Well the Prime Minister’s deal has the virtue of at least having been negotiated. It has got many, many flaws and it is not in our national interest to do it. The other schemes, Canada Plus, Norway Plus, they haven’t even been negotiated, we don’t even know whether they could be negotiated and certainly in any relevant timeframe. I think the time has come for us, after two and a half years, to try and give certainty to people in my constituency in Orpington are looking for, businesses all over the country are looking for and to put this to rest once and for all.

SR: Now you mentioned that past interviews often ask you about family issues so I’ll apologise in advance for my next question but in an interview yesterday you said about your brother, Boris Johnson, who campaigned to leave the EU, “His force of personality painted over the absence of any deliverable plan.” So do you think that Brexit wouldn’t have happened then if it hadn’t been for your brother?

JO JOHNSON: Well I think he was a very prominent campaigner for Brexit and I think he played a part in getting the country over the line, there is no doubt about that. He and others, like Michael Gove and other big prominent figures of the Leave campaign, yes, of course they were really influential in the debate.

SR: And of course Brexit has been a pretty divisive issue for many families, do you think there will be a few awkward moments at the Johnson family this Christmas?

JO JOHNSON: Actually we’re united as a family right now in dismay at the deal that’s on the table from the government. Our priority, my priority, is to ensure that we don’t take an irrevocable step by accepting this bad deal. It’s not in our national interest and I think it’s really important we think again before we do that.

SR: Okay, Jo Johnson, thank you very much.

JO JOHNSON: Thank you.