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Interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Jacob Rees-Mogg made two very important comments which will have brought relief and delight to No 10.
First, he resolutely condemned attacks on Ollie Robbins, the Prime Minister’s senior Brexit advisor and negotiator as wholly inappropriate and “borderline unconstitutional”. Mr Robbins is chief bogey-man for those who want to criticise the Prime Minister’s approach to Brexit, but dare not do it directly. Mr Rees-Mogg is correct to condemn such attacks. He understands that civil servants, no matter how senior, prepare papers, give advice and conduct discussions, but at the end of the day it is for ministers to determine policy and to take decisions. Mrs Thatcher, quoted by Mr Rees-Mogg today, was right when she said, “advisers advise, ministers decide”. Mr Robbins is an advice giver, and Mrs May a decision maker.
Secondly, and much more importantly, Mrs May will have noted Mr Rees-Mogg’s unequivocal response when asked whether he would ever support a vote of no confidence in Mrs May and her government which was “it is inconceivable” that he would. This makes the decision Mrs May has to take much easier.
Issues around the/a customs union are fraught with technicalities, realities, and factors that are related to it but are not directly concerned by it. Chief among the latter is what the status of the border between the North and South of Ireland in a post Brexit world is to be.
The customs union debate is the latest in Mrs May’s task of trying to fashion a set of policies to deliver a Brexit that can command the necessary support in Parliament. Mrs May’s challenge, unifying the Parliamentary Conservative Party around a European policy, is one that none of her seven predecessors as Leader of the Party since 1973 succeeded in. It is therefore a big ask of Mrs May that she should be able to forge such a consensus in the political white heat of Brexit.
The Prime Minister’s painstaking and deliberate approach to policy-making drives some of her parliamentary colleagues up the wall. Many want her to come to Parliament with a clear and robust statement of policy – so long as it accords with their view of how it should be done. Mr Rees-Mogg’s clear statement this morning, however, has strengthened her hand considerably in Parliament. As leader of the Parliamentary European Reform Group Mr Rees-Mogg’s statement rejecting a vote of no confidence in the government means that Mrs May is freer than she was to bring forward the policy of her choice and ask Parliament to back her.