LONDON – Boris Johnson suffered a surprise blow to his election campaign on day one of the contest when senior Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan announced she was quitting politics.
Morgan, the culture secretary, said members of Parliament had suffered “abuse” and that her family had faced pressure because of her role in public life. She said she would continue to support Johnson in the election taking place on Dec. 12.
“The clear impact on my family and the other sacrifices involved in, and the abuse for, doing the job of a modern MP can only be justified if, ultimately, Parliament does what it is supposed to do,” Morgan said in a letter to her local Conservative Party chair that she posted on Twitter. That is to “represent those we serve in all areas of policy, respect votes cast by the electorate and make decisions in the overall national interest.”
Morgan, 47, is the latest high profile Tory to quit Parliament during one of the most divisive and bitter periods of recent British history. Her resignation is a headache for Johnson, who not only loses a high-profile woman from his team, but one of the few members of his Cabinet who is seen as a moderate on Brexit.
He must now also find a replacement candidate to stand in her district.
The U.K.’s tortured three-year divorce from the European Union — which has yet to be completed -— has tested the country’s constitutional conventions to the limit. Members of Parliament are frequently targeted with death threats on social media, ministers have required police escorts in public, and even the prime minister himself has been accused by an archbishop of stoking anger and division.
The bill setting the date of an early election passed the House of Lords on Wednesday evening, meaning it only needs now to receive royal assent — a formality. While the official campaign won’t kick off until next week, Johnson and his arch-rival, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn traded blows in the House of Commons earlier on Wednesday in a foretaste of the conflict to come.
Johnson accused Corbyn of plotting to ruin what should be a “glorious” year in 2020 with another referendum on Brexit. He claimed Corbyn would deliver an “economic catastrophe” for Britain and outlined his own priorities of delivering Brexit and supporting the police service, health and the economy.
Corbyn hit back, attacking Johnson’s record on the country’s beloved National Health Service, accusing him of cutting funds and planning to privatize the institution by offering it up in a future trade deal with the U.S. “This government is preparing to sell out our NHS,” Corbyn said.
Labour’s campaign is expected to continue to focus on the effect of a decade of austerity to the country, while offering a renegotiation of Brexit followed by a second referendum.
The prime minister called for the poll on Dec. 12 as a way to break the deadlock over the country’s departure from the EU. He has no majority in Parliament and, like his predecessor, Theresa May, has failed to get a Brexit deal ratified in the House of Commons.
If he wins a majority, Johnson says he will be able to deliver the deal he negotiated with the EU and turn the country’s focus onto his domestic agenda. But there’s a risk his gamble backfires and the Labour Party regains power for the first time since 2010.
But to win seats, Johnson needs to maintain the party’s appeal to pro-European moderates while appealing to Brexit-supporting voters in the the Midlands and northern England who have traditionally voted Labour.
That wider appeal is at risk as a number of key moderates leave Parliament. Along with Morgan, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke, Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, former Education Secretary Justine Greening and Johnson’s own brother, Jo, are making their exits from the political stage; many after being expelled from the party.
Morgan has been a member of Parliament for Loughborough, in central England, since 2010. She rose in Prime Minister David Cameron’s government to become education secretary, but May fired her from the Cabinet and she became chair of the Treasury Select Committee. Johnson brought her back into the Cabinet in July.
In the 2017 election, Morgan won 50 percent of the vote in her district. Labour was in second place with 42 percent of the vote. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, Loughborough was evenly balanced on the question of EU membership.
Morgan backed staying in the EU, and after the referendum was a thorn in May’s side as one of 11 Tory rebels who in December 2017 amended the EU Withdrawal Bill to guarantee Parliament would get a vote on any Brexit accord reached by the prime minister. That amendment ultimately was the root of May’s downfall as she failed three times to persuade Parliament to back her deal.
But Morgan herself voted for May’s deal and became a key figure in trying to shape a Brexit compromise that could appeal to both wings of the Tory Party, saying the U.K. had to respect the referendum result.