Hard Brexiters hate taking responsibility, which means May is safer than she looks

Rees-Mogg and co do not want to confront the choices currently facing the PM, still less spell them out to the country. They just want freedom to complain that Brexit has been bodged

January 31, 2018
Arch-Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images
Arch-Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

All things considered, the most ardently eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party has been remarkably loyal to Theresa May. I doubt it feels that way inside No 10, of course. The Prime Minister is treated to Brexit demands from impatient backbenchers on a daily basis: no more compromises, no dilutions, sack Philip Hammond, wicked diluter-in-chief.The implicit threat is regicide. It takes 48 letters from Tory MPs to Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, to trigger a vote of no confidence in the leader. Once malcontents from other wings of the party are factored in, the hard Brexit ultras shouldn't have much difficulty getting the numbers. The European Research Group (ERG), currently chaired by arch-eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg, has emerged as a disciplined phalanx within the parliamentary party. They can topple May if they want to. Do they want to?

Clearly not yet, since they haven't done it. And yet the hardest Brexiteers shouldn't need much more evidence that the PM’s instincts are different to theirs when it comes to Britain's future relationship with the European Union. Yes, she did commit to departure from the single market and the customs union within months of taking office. She did promise a “clean break.” She did say many times that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” which emboldened those who believe that no deal—a sudden rupture and reliance on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules—is exactly the sort of thing that Britain should be gunning for.

But it has since become obvious that May has no intention of walking away from the negotiations; that she does not seriously countenance “no deal” and that her path forward is paved entirely with compromise. This was clear from the terms of the phase one agreement struck in December, allowing the EU to declare that “sufficient progress” had been made for talks to proceed towards transition and final status. There was a fair amount of fudge in that deal, especially on the Irish border question, but the trajectory towards incremental change and a very high degree of regulatory alignment for many years to come was unmissable. The ERG types who have dedicated years to obsessive, paranoid critique of EU arrangements can't have missed it. Yet they did not rebel—not seriously.

Rees-Mogg warned about red lines turning pinkish. But there was no suggestion that May should give up on phase one and walk away. Surely here was concrete evidence that Britain was on track to a bad deal, paying billions just to stand still. Surely, if the WTO scenario was as attractive and easy as the no-dealers routinely advertised it to be, December was a moment to demand that the PM have the courage to slam the door on Monsieur Barnier.

“The technicolour bespoke dreamcoat deal is still unavailable”
Instead the no-deal chatter went quiet. May was allowed a moment of triumph. The hard Brexit-supporting press rowed in behind the PM. The “no deal” bluff was called.

Now, as the focus of talks shifts to transition and the final-status relationship, the noise is cranking up again. Rees-Mogg frets about arrangements that would make a “vassal state” of the UK. So how far will the the backbench hard squad go to escape such a fate? Are they still bluffing?

The situation calls to mind the PM’s immortal, accidental campaign slogan: Nothing Has Changed. The collision course between reality and fantasy can be plotted on lines familiar from last year. The UK will have to accept that the parameters of a phase two deal are defined by the negotiating mandate laid down by the European Council. There will be wriggle room but a conceptually new, hitherto unimagined relationship—combining full single market participation and freedom to diverge from single market rules; the technicolour bespoke dreamcoat deal—is still unavailable.

Again, those among the hard Brexiters who really pay attention must know this to be true. They must know that their heroic-sounding dream of total emancipation from “Brussels” has, in the cold morning, become a bog-standard free-trade deal on the Canadian template, maybe with some bells and whistles for the services sector plus a notional capacity to prepare trade deals with other countries. The benefits of these deals will be known only many years in the future and their superiority to single market membership is, according to any dispassionate economic analysis, a fiction.

The hardest Brexiters must also know that even this prosaic adjustment to the status quo can't take effect until December 2020 at the earliest. Still they fear betrayal. They worry that their product has lost so much of its alluring that May will be tempted (or steered by the Chancellor and Whitehall officials) towards something altogether softer—customs unions and Norwegian-style perpetual alignments. Hence the whispers of insurrection.

But if the ERG brigade was so confident that its version of Brexit is superior to anything currently on offer, the logical thing to do would be dispose of May and mobilise their numbers in the Tory Party to secure the leadership for one of their own—Rees-Mogg perhaps. Their argument, as I understand it, is that May, through stupidity or cowardice, is missing an opportunity to do something brilliant and obvious. Well then, why not hurry up and replace her with someone else and let the brilliance and obviousness of the alternative plan speak for itself. Victory would be assured at home and abroad.
“The backbench rumbling also has another crucial audience: senior Brexiters in the cabinet”
The reason this doesn't happen is that the brilliant-and-obvious option doesn't exist. The whispers of insurrection are meant to intimidate May away from further compromise with reality but it is vital that she also stay in office to absorb reality's blows. Rees-Mogg doesn't want to confront the choices currently facing the PM, still less spell them out to the country. He and his friends want Brexit to be an irreversible legal fact by next March and they want the freedom to complain that it has been bodged; that the dream has been betrayed by Remoaners and their civil service accomplices. This is the new variant on having your cake and eating it.

The backbench rumbling also has another crucial audience. It is directed in part at senior Brexiters in the cabinet—Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis, Liam Fox. The shots being fired go across their bows too, for they are complicit with May's incipient moderation. In the eyes of the ultras, the cabinet's prominent leavers are not doing their job properly. They are failing to thwart Hammond and failing to dictate the No 10 agenda. And since Johnson et al. also harbour leadership ambitions, the restive noises of the ERG are intended as a reminder that the hard Brexit faction is a caucus that cannot be ignored. Look, they say, we have Rees-Mogg. So if you want to be the next leader, you need to represent us better in cabinet.

None of this means May is safe. Party leaderships can unravel very suddenly. And there are certainly a few Tory MPs who are not gaming this situation rationally at all, who would strap on the political explosives and run at the PM out of sheer zealotry, without much care for the consequences. But the suicide squad is not so numerous. The rest will talk darkly of replacing May, but they need her as much as she needs them. She is failing to deliver their ideal Brexit but they need her to be the one who tries and fails conspicuously, because there is no ideal Brexit. What is their threat? That if May sells them out they can take over with a better plan? They do not want that power now because they do not want the responsibility it would bring.

Brexit Britain: the future of industry is a publication which examines the future of UK manufacturing through the prism of the recently released Industrial Strategy White Paper. The report features contributions from the likes of Greg Clark MP, Miriam Gonzalez, Richard Graham MP and Frances O’Grady.

If you want to know all about where industry is headed in Brexit Britain, you can download the whole Brexit Britain: The future of industry reportas a fully designed PDF document. To do so, simply enter your email below. You’ll receive your copy completely free—within minutes. [prosform fields="email,forename,surname" signupcode="Industry" countrycode="GB" redirect="other/the-future-of-industry-is-yours"]

When you sign up for this free report, you will also join our free Prospect newsletter.

Prospect takes your privacy seriously. We promise never to rent or sell your e-mail address to any third party. You can unsubscribe from the Prospect newsletter at any time.