Joyce McMillan: Britain is heading for extreme Brexit

Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg after making a speech at a Leave Means Leave event at Carlton House Terrace, London.
Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg after making a speech at a Leave Means Leave event at Carlton House Terrace, London.
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Theresa May’s political weakness allowing a small group of MPs to lead the UK into peril, writes Joyce McMillan

Sometimes, it is a useful exercise just to sit and look calmly, for a while, at the actual results of Britain’s most recent elections. It can be a tedious job, but it never fails to act as a reality-check on some current political assumptions and pretensions; and this week, I have been pondering the result of Britain’s snap general election of June 2017.

To an extent not seen in Britain for a generation, it was an election monopolised by the two main parties, Conservative and Labour, who won 42 and 40 per cent of the vote respectively. The figure that stands out most vividly today, though, is the one that reminds us that Theresa May presides over a parliamentary party of 317 MPs – to Labour’s 262 – only 60 of whom are members of what is routinely referred to as “the influential European Research Group”, the backbench grouping chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg which is pressing for the hardest possible Brexit, involving no customs union arrangement with the European Union, and no continuing membership of the single market.

This week, the UK media have been alive with tales about how this group, which has the support of five or six Cabinet Ministers, has been threatening Mrs May with rebellion on the matter of her very modest plan for some sort of post-Brexit customs co-operation with the EU – a plan that arguably represents the absolute minimum necessary to maintain an open border in Ireland, as required by the Good Friday Agreement.

To the Brexit extremists, though, this modest proposal is as a red rag to a bull. For weeks, they have been blustering to their friends in the media about how Mrs May’s proposal is “unworkable”, although every other non-EU country in Europe manages to have a working customs arrangement with the EU, and how it would, in Rees-Mogg’s famously sensational phrase, reduce Britain to the status of a “vassal state”.

And now, after a stormy Cabinet committee meeting on Wednesday, it seems that they have succeeded in persuading Mrs May to put her plan on hold, and to commission yet further research into other ways of achieving “frictionless trade”. We are told that key pro-Brexit Cabinet Ministers might have resigned in protest if she had not done so; and the whole tussle is presented as a great victory for “the people” in their struggle to achieve the pure, perfect and absolute Brexit for which they are said to have voted on 23 June 2016.

Now it is hard to know where to start in demolishing the sheer nonsense of this pro-Brexit narrative. In the first place, no-one in June 2016 voted for any particular form of Brexit or for any detailed Brexit plan, because those proposing Brexit had not been asked to provide one, and did not do so. In the second place, almost half of those voting made it clear that they wanted no Brexit at all. In the third place, every economic assessment made since the referendum suggests that the closer the UK can remain to current trading arrangements with the EU, post-Brexit, the less damage we will suffer to our economy and society.

And beyond all of that, it is absolutely clear that in Britain’s elected parliament, this group of extreme hard Brexiteers cannot enjoy the support of more than about one-fifth of the members. Even at the highest estimate – including the DUP and other sympathisers – their Commons support is unlikely to rise above the 130 mark, out of a total of 649 voting MPs.

So why is their “extreme Brexit” beginning to look like the most likely outcome for the UK? There are three key reasons. The first is that the European Research Group has immense wealth and vital media connections on its side, along with the invincible arrogance of a right-wing financial class that has now become used to perpetual victory in its push for ever weaker and more pliable government. The second is that UK’s main opposition party remains hopelessly divided in parliament, and unable to agree on a convincing EU policy.

And the third is that instead of having a statesman or stateswoman as Prime Minister, capable of surveying the whole political landscape and drawing all those opposed to a hard Brexit into a working political alliance for an European Free Trade Association-type solution, we instead have a leader who views the antics of her party’s right-wing with all the calm assurance of a frightened rabbit. As Home Secretary, under pressure from shrieking anti-migrant headlines, she hastily introduced the appalling series of citizenship policies that have now led to the Windrush scandal; and now, as the Brexit deadline looms, she seems incapable of thinking beyond the day-to-day task of holding her government together, and throwing the Brexit extremists enough chunks of meat to keep them from devouring her.

And what the Prime Minister cannot see, from that narrow party perspective, is how her failure to denounce Brexit extremism, and to stand up for a common-sense approach to Britain’s departure from the EU, is betraying the vast majority, both in Britain’s parliament and among its people. Overwhelming support is out there, for a more practical and sustainable approach that minimises the damage of Brexit to the economy and to individual lives, while substantially disentangling the UK from the EU’s political institutions.

In failing to reach out and mobilise that majority, though, our current political leaders have shown themselves dangerously unequal to the challenges of the hour. Like failed left-and-centre politicians in other historic moments of crisis, they are handing the initiative to a small hard-right minority through a lethal mixture of cowardice, complacency and short-sightedness. And with the only credible candidates now bidding to take Mrs May’s place coming from the very group who seem bent on destroying the Good Friday Agreement, imperilling Britain’s trading relationship with its nearest neighbours, and letting the rights and well-being of ordinary British citizens go hang in pursuit of their ideological project, it seems that for a while at least, so far as UK politics is concerned, reasons to be cheerful will be in short supply; and growing scarcer by the day.