Jacob Rees-Mogg and colleagues risk being left with little chance to prevent a soft Brexitby Asa Bennett / December 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg departs after speaking to the media outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. Photo: PA Scores of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs are part of the European Research Group. So when Theresa May’s sealing of the Brexit deal last month prompted its chairman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to dramatically announce that he no longer had confidence in her leadership, it seemed like his fellow Brexiteers would join him in his charge. It quickly became apparent that Rees-Mogg’s move had not been so well co-ordinated. The group ended up floundering quickly as the excitable predictions doing the rounds among Tory MPs about how soon a no confidence vote would be triggered failed to materialise. Days later, Rees-Mogg struggled to deny the charge that the ERG had been a bit “Dad’s Army” in its manoeuvres, and has spent the last few weeks studiously refusing to speculate on the numbers of malcontent MPs. Meanwhile, recriminations started to bubble between Brexiteer members of the group. Rees-Mogg’s right-hand man Steve Baker suggested some MPs had lied to him, lamenting that evidently not everyone who had promised to write had done so. The suggestion did the rounds that a list of names would be published, making clear who had made such pledges in order to scare them to stick to their word. This week, however, it seemed the group might end the ridicule when Sir Graham Brady confirmed that enough letters had been received for a confidence vote. Talk was rife about the ERG’s operations being managed from a room dubbed “the killing zone” by Brexiteer MPs. It was rumoured that they even expected cabinet members to take advantage of the secret ballot and privately vote to remove Mrs May. “He has his thumb on the scale” However, the complaints came in from Brexiteers before voting had even started, with Sir Graham accused of helping Mrs May unfairly by holding the vote at the end of the day it had been announced—much sooner than they had planned. “It is an absolute outrage. He has his thumb on the scale,” one MP said. One could well suggest that, given they had been itching for weeks to remove Mrs May, it is hard for her critics to suggest they were caught on the hop. Needless to say, their blaming the referee meant it was no surprise that they failed to oust her. The best gloss Rees-Mogg could put on having just a third of the parliamentary party join him in voting to remove the Prime Minister was that it showed “an overwhelming majority of backbenchers” wanted her out, as he argued that the supporters were mostly comprised of those on the government payroll. Given that it was a secret ballot, however, those with jobs could vote to remove Mrs May without having to resign. Rees-Mogg struggled to show that his group had planned very far when he responded to the result by announcing that she should go to the Queen and resign anyway. He may well have made that call as a cry of frustration, given that her success—even if isn’t by a thumping margin—means she is immune from any future leadership challenge for a year. And that covers her neatly for the final few months of the Brexit process. A strategic quandary The ERG now finds itself in a strategic quandary. The group’s recent moves against the Prime Minister show that just because Rees-Mogg says something, it doesn’t automatically mean around 80 Tory Eurosceptics will follow suit. Indeed, it remains tricky to marshall scores of Tory Brexiteers behind clear lines, given how fissiparous their thinking and motivations can be. They are still struggling to settle around a clear alternative to Mrs May, with the likes of Boris Johnson, David Davis and Dominic Raab continuing to vie for pole position Rees-Mogg, a senior Conservative Brexiteer told me in August was “very concerned that we have one Eurosceptic slate and don’t divide our forces.” But now, the ERG chairman has said publicly this week that he did not expect a single person to emerge, but a “number of candidates for the Eurosceptic wing of the party.” “There are far too many Eurosceptic candidates in the race,” a source laments to me. Whether the group will be able to have a substantial impact on the Brexit outcome remains to be seen. Its MPs still threaten to vote against Mrs May’s deal, but if they do not support her in enough numbers, they risk driving her to seek support from elsewhere in Parliament—like the Labour benches. She could well do that by softening her terms of exit further to emulate Norway, or perhaps by adopting a formal customs union—an idea suggested by former Brexit minister Lord Bridges—to comply with the last sticking point in meeting their “six tests” for backing a deal. It’s not over, however. The “Dad’s Army” ERG might have failed to remove the Prime Minister from her Downing Street bunker, and now risk being left with little way to stop her delivering too soft a Brexit for their liking, but it would be wrong to dismiss them as a force. They represent swathes of Conservative party members—so will be a potent force in any future leadership contest.