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It looks as though the balloon is going up in Tory Brexit circles. The Prime Minister’s comments in an LBC interview with Iain Dale seem to have dismayed a lot of Brexiteers. She could not, or would not, be clear on how she would vote if the EU referendum happened again. You might say that this is just down to the Tory leader being consistent with her vote for Remain last year. But in the febrile mood of the moment, with some Brexiteers fearing betrayal, and a Prime Minister and doom-laden Chancellor who were for Remain, it threatens to weaken her fragile position even further.
But before all that kicks off at PMQs and beyond, it is worth noting a blatant piece of chicanery on Brexit by the new darling of the Tory right Jacob Rees-Mogg. And worth scrutinising what he is up to. At Conservative conference, the unfailingly polite Rees-Mogg was chased down the road by young men in double-breasted suits seeking autographs. His fringe meetings were packed. Media bids flowed in. I hear him talked of by smart people as a potential Foreign Secretary.
There was a problem though, and it was observable in the analysis of those who – once all the initial chortling was over – listened closely to what Rees-Mogg said. A Tory donor told me that he listened carefully to Rees-Mogg complain about the Tory modernisation programme and where it all went wrong and concluded that JRM was offering something rather closed and unappealing. Another MP said: “Reheated right winger with funny lines.” One MP said to me that he could not serve under Rees-Mogg.
It is not just that Rees-Mogg is extremely socially conservative, a position completely at odds with the views of voters under the age of 50. This is more subtle than that. If the Tory modernisers were too dismissive of other wings of the Tory tribe, then it is no good someone from the right repeating the mistake in the other direction, with knobs on.
Back to Brexit. On Monday, Rees-Mogg asked the Prime Minister a question in the Commons after her statement on Brexit. May rightly pointed out that the two year transition – 2019 to 2021 – to a new relationship would involve a role for the ECJ.
Rees-Mogg said: “If the ECJ still has jurisdiction, we will not have left the EU. It is perhaps the most important red line in ensuring the leave vote is honoured.”
Of course the ECJ will have a role in transition, if it happens. How can this be a shock to anyone who has been paying attention? Transition is going to be very much like being in the EU. That’s the point. This was the absolute heart of May’s Florence speech, the key message, although it could have been spelled out in a simple slogan or two. Why is transition necessary? Business does not want or need two adjustments, in 2019 and then again in 2021. Transition from 2019 to 2021 is a means of giving both sides certainty and more room to agree a deal on the future relationship, if such a deal can be done.
Now, there is a position – reckless, but logical and pure – which involves no transition and a complete break in one go in March 2019. What are we waiting for?! Get on with it! Customs?! Regulatory standards?! City of London?! Who cares?!
Fine, although I suggest that people who want that sudden break with no transition should by now have a coherent plan for every aspect of what this means in practice. And if government has not prepared it then there should surely be detailed planning documents – ports, air traffic, scientific agencies – that the ultra-leavers have in hand that can be produced so any crunch is minimised and managed, yes?
If this approach – out in one go, zero ECJ after March 2019, for without the ECJ transition is dead – is what Rees-Mogg really wants, he should say so and become the leader of the “out in one go” crowd. Or did he misunderstand Florence? I find that hard to believe. He is intelligent.
One hesitates to float the unthinkable notion, considering what a stickler he is for rectitude, but JRM wouldn’t have understood it perfectly well but have pretended not to, bashing the ECJ element of transition, in order to show a bit of ultra-leave ankle, beneath that chalk-stripe cloth, to ultra-leavers and Tory activists? No, he would not have done that – spoken with forked tongue about the ECJ to the Prime Minister – because that would be almost caddish.