As the EU talks stumble on, ousting the embattled Theresa May could plunge the UK into a hard Brexit, writes Joyce McMillan.
Wednesday evening and I am listening, with some disbelief, to a confrontation in a Westminster committee room between two strong supporters of Brexit, the minister David Davis, and celebrity backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, famous for his ultra-retro style and views. Time and again, in tones of polite but unrelenting hostility, Rees-Mogg tries to make Davis concede that during the planned transition period towards Britain’s separation from the EU, Britain will be what he calls an EU “vassal state”, bound by EU regulations and laws, but no longer a member of the EU bodies that make the rules.
Davis argues repeatedly that the dramatic phrase “vassal state” is an odd one to use about a temporary transitional phase in Britain’s EU withdrawal, but Rees-Mogg persists.
And although his demeanour and language might seem eccentric to the point of peculiarity, he speaks with great confidence; like one who knows that his views are in the ascendant, in a party increasingly exasperated by Theresa May’s wavering leadership. This week, for example, Boris Johnson – another leader of the Brexit faction – fired a powerful shot across the Prime Minister’s bows, briefing his friends in the media about how he was determined, at this week’s cabinet meeting, to lobby for payment of a £100 million-a-week Brexit bonus – not quite the £350m he talked so much about during the referendum campaign – to the NHS.
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He was rebuked, of course, for conducting cabinet business via the media; but he was not sacked, since he is now apparently – for all his buffoonery – too big a Tory beast for that.
Meanwhile, the chair of the backbench Tory 1922 Committee is said to be begging MPs not to send him any more letters demanding a leadership contest, otherwise he will have to act. And if all of this genuinely reflects the mood in the parliamentary Tory Party, then the UK could be just weeks from the moment when the premiership passes from Mrs May’s hands – relatively moderate ones, in current Tory terms – into the control of those who want to rip up all the ties that bind the UK to the EU with immediate effect, and to walk away from any further negotiation with our erstwhile European partners.
All of which might, it seems, come as quite a shock to many people in Britain who appear to have been comforting themselves, of late, with the idea that Brexit will never really happen; or that if it does, it will come in a form that can be sold to voters as Brexit, but will in fact be almost unnoticeable.
Many people in Scotland, in particular, seem to find it hard to believe that Britain’s famously pragmatic ruling class will allow a rupture of relations with our biggest trading partner that could be so traumatic to British business and agriculture; they hear the CBI arguing for continued British membership of the customs union, and perhaps also of the European single market, and they conclude that Britain’s business community is likely, in the end, to get its way.
Yet to listen to the voices of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg is to hear something else in play; something that consigns the tradition of practical, business-friendly Conservatism embodied by politicians from Ken Clarke to David Cameron firmly to the past.
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On one hand, there is a form of nostalgic British nationalism that involves an apparent lust for conflict and competition with the nations of continental Europe, rather than co-operation; the very language of the Brexiteers, with their occasional lapses into talk of “the enemy”, demonstrates how they long to return to the dream of a Britain that stands alone as it did in 1940, as a nation stronger than, and morally superior to, all European competitors.
And on the other hand, there is their devil’s alliance with the fiercely destructive “catastrophe capitalism” now embraced by some sections of the financial industry, and of the right-wing media; the idea that the more institutions and structures can be torn down, the more EU-type regulations can be trashed, and traumatic change forced through the system, the more money there is to be made – usually for those already rich – from privatisations and fire sales, and, of course, from making downside market bets on the undoing of whole industries and sectors, as many did before last week’s Carillon collapse.
And it seems to me, surveying the state of the Conservative Party, that the government of the UK is now in imminent danger of being subjected to a kind of coup by that small but increasingly influential minority of MPs.
In the House of Commons, there is no majority for leaving the EU at all, if members were to vote according to their judgment and consciences. In the country, the majority for leaving the EU is wafer-thin, if it still exists at all, and offers no information about what kind of exit that Leave-voting majority had in mind; and what’s more, the Conservative government currently has no parliamentary majority.
Yet somehow, despite all those facts, we find ourselves facing the possibility that unrest in the Tory Party will lead us within months to the hardest type of Brexit imaginable, with no deal, and no special arrangements.
It goes without saying, of course, that the Goves, the Rees-Moggs and the Johnsons of this world would not be playing these dangerous, chauvinistic games with our economic future if their own friends and families stood to lose their livelihoods and financial security because of it; but that’s how it rolls, when voters mistake a bunch of privileged nostalgists and wealthy mischief-makers for friends of the people.
And, if and when a hard Brexit is achieved, the only question left will be whether the Brexiteers will be able to use their friendly media to persuade us of its success, regardless of the facts; or whether those parts of the UK that never wanted to leave in the first place will finally begin to rebel, to demand an escape from the world of England’s dreaming as articulated by Rees-Mogg, and to reject the toxic alliance of rampant nationalism and burnt-out casino capitalism that has brought us to this place, but that fundamentally has no future to offer.