Jo Johnson lamented the fact that Brexit had “divided families” in his resignation statement. None has been more publicly split than his own.
His brother Boris Johnson was the leading figure in the Leave campaign, while he was a passionate Remainer. Their sister Rachel has been a prominent proponent of holding a new vote on the final Brexit deal negotiated by the prime minister.
Allies say Jo Johnson’s decision to follow the lead of his elder brother and quit government in protest at the prime minister’s handling of Brexit lays bare the government’s dilemma.
“Jo and Boris have polar opposite views and yet they have reached the same conclusion about where we are heading,” said one former Downing Street aide. “It shows the spectrum of disquiet.”
Boris Johnson quit as foreign secretary in July, after concluding that Theresa May’s Brexit plan would leave Britain with “the status of colony”. On Friday, his brother Jo Johnson warned of “vassalage”.
Both brothers are old boys of Eton College and attended Oxford university, where they were members of the exclusive Bullingdon Club.
They have both been journalists. Boris Johnson spent years as the Brussels correspondent and columnist for the Daily Telegraph, while Jo Johnson had a career at the Financial Times before moving into politics.
But Conservatives say the two could not be more different. “What’s interesting about Jo is that he is so unlike the rest of the family, who are huge extroverts,” said one former colleague. “The rest of the family is ‘out there’ but he is actually a very thoughtful person and not attention-seeking in any way.”
Jo Johnson is considered more left-leaning than Boris and is married to Amelia Gentleman, the Guardian journalist who exposed the Windrush scandal over mistreatment by the Home Office of Caribbean immigrants earlier this year.
While Boris Johnson has a reputation for serial gaffes, his brother has rarely had a moment in the limelight.
But friends of Jo Johnson said he felt “very strongly” that the prime minister was heading in the wrong direction. They added that being part of the government during the past few months had been “very difficult”.
The two brothers have an “odd dynamic” whereby some of their public positions are strikingly different yet they maintain a close family bond.
“People in the party used to try and wind Boris up before he came back into parliament, by saying that his younger brother was going to be more successful than him,” said the former Downing Street aide. “It felt like there was a degree of sibling rivalry there, but I suspect more from Boris’s side than Jo’s.”
Jo Johnson was the head of the Number 10 policy unit from 2013 until 2015. He became a minister in the Cabinet Office in 2014. From 2015 he was universities minister, only to lose the job amid a row over tuition fees in January this year, when he was shifted sideways into the transport department. He made little secret of his displeasure at being shunted out of the role, or his despair at Theresa May’s handling of Brexit.
One person who has worked with the younger brother said he was “hugely intelligent” and “extremely cautious”.
“He doesn’t make an effort to put others at ease. He is sometimes too cerebral and forgets to be human,” he said. “He actually has a brilliant sense of humour but you rarely see it.”
Another former colleague said: “They may seem very different but he has some of the same attributes as Boris: he is not without ego or ambition in his own way. He is quite private about family matters. He never really talked about Boris at all.”
While Boris Johnson has made a career out of being a fervent critic of the EU, Jo Johnson has made the most of his more pro-European instincts.
He speaks fluent French and studied at both Insead, the management school in Paris, and the Université Libre de Bruxelles before working at Deutsche Bank. One of his roles at the FT was Paris correspondent, from 2001 to 2005.
Responding to his brother’s resignation, Boris Johnson said on Twitter that he had “boundless admiration” for him.
Their father Stanley also welcomed Jo’s resignation, saying he hoped it would help persuade Mrs May to pull out of her compromise Brexit strategy. “Cannons from the left and right, the prime minister is charging into the Valley of Death,” he said.
Sister Rachel added: “Jo’s quitting shows we are also in despair at the way the negotiations have gone from soaring ‘cake-and-eat-it’ optimism to ‘worst of all worlds’ defeatism and a travesty of Brexit.”
“Jo is brave and on the right side of history.”
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne and George ParkerBrexit, Deal, divided, Family, Johnson, Mayamp039s, Theresa, unites