Cometh the hour, cometh the Mogg

Cometh the hour, cometh the Mogg

It was fitting that, on the eve of the anniversary of Theresa May’s Lancaster House Speech, none other than Jacob Rees-Mogg was elected to chair the European Research Group of Conservative MPs. Promising to “help the Government implement the principles laid down by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, in her Lancaster House speech” in a “helpful, vigorous and supportive” way, his appointment will reassure Brexiteers that any possible drift away from the Lancaster House principles during the negotiations will not go unchallenged.

In a reversal of the normal state of affairs for much of the last few decades, backbench revolts since the referendum have come not from Eurosceptics but from Europhiles, with only a small handful of pro-EU Conservative rebels able to inflict a defeat on the Government thanks to the narrow Parliamentary arithmetic since the General Election.

By contrast, the European Research Group counts its membership at somewhere between 60 and 100 Conservative MPs. Relaunched in 2016 by Steve Baker – whose deft manoeuvres on the backbenches during the final months of the Cameron premiership played such a crucial role in the EU referendum battle – it simultaneously attracts the envy of its opponents and a healthy dose of respect from the Government.

It has not had to call upon its considerable clout too often in the Brexit process thus far, with Theresa May having committed to the delivery of a clean Brexit. Indeed the two previous Chairmen, Steve Baker and Suella Fernandes, are now both ministers in the Brexit Department. However, should circumstances change, the ERG will not remain quiet for long with the forthright figure of Jacob Rees-Mogg at the helm.

For despite the Government’s relative success in reaching a deal on the first phase of the negotiations with its red lines intact – if looking “a little pink”, as Rees-Mogg himself put it – there is still the danger that Britain slips into a Brexit which fails to return full democratic control to the UK and leaves the UK under the EU’s thumb across a wide range of areas.

Such an approach, where the UK adopts high levels of regulatory alignment with the EU in a ‘Norway-lite’ model, is still reportedly being advocated by many within the Cabinet, notably Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd. The UK’s top civil servant, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and Theresa May’s top Brexit official, Olly Robbins, are also said to favour this ‘top-down’ approach, which would see the UK opt in to EU law by default unless a specific decision was taken not to in a particular area.

This would critically undermine the substance of Brexit as well as the UK’s attempts to make a success of it. It would leave the UK in the single market in all but name, preventing Parliament from repealing or modifying EU laws in future and harming the UK’s ability to do deep and meaningful trade deals around the world. The UK would left as a client state of the EU – a rule-taker with no say and drastically curtailed ability to forge a new global role in the world. Moreover, this is precisely the kind of ‘cherry-picking’ approach which the EU is so averse to in the negotiations.

Even the UK’s former European Commissioner Lord Hill, writing yesterday in the FT, has said that “tying ourselves to a system we cannot control, and one that is already moving in a different direction, cannot be a viable long term economic strategy for an economy like ours.”

Meanwhile, it has been left to Boris Johnson to make the case for a clean Brexit in Cabinet, supported by his former Vote Leave associates Michael Gove and Liam Fox. They are fighting for a ‘bottom-up’ approach, building on the baseline of CETA – the EU-Canada deal which eliminates over 98% of tariffs on goods, and which the EU has already put on the table as its opening gambit in the trade talks – and then adding in areas of mutual interest, such as financial services and aviation, in a way that does not put a general constraint on the UK’s abilities to decide its laws for itself in a democratic fashion.

With this internal debate still due to take place within the Cabinet over the next couple of weeks ahead of a final decision in early February, the timing of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s election could not be more opportune, with a powerful voice now set to boom out from the backbenches in support of the Cabinet Leavers. Should the Remainers win out, that voice might just become too loud for the Government to bear. It could well prove the difference between Brexit remaining on the straight and narrow or being reduced to a mere exercise in rebranding.

Cometh the hour, cometh the Mogg.