Jacob Rees-Mogg has delivered a Brexit-or-bust ultimatum to the Prime Minister over leaving the European Union, a move that is set to make a crunch Cabinet summit at Chequers a game of cat-and-mouse.
The leading Brexiteer wrote in The Telegraph that Theresa May had made many Brexit promises ahead of Britain’s farewell to Brussels and now needs to keep them or risk collapsing the Government.
And given Tory in-fighting last week reached the upper rungs of the Party - with environment secretary Michael Gove ripping up options on future customs options in anger amid pleas for unity for Britain’s sake - his warning isn’t without weight.
At Chequers, the Prime Minister must stick to her “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra, or risk splitting the Conservative Party like Sir Robert Peel - Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote
May is set to bring ministers together at her Buckinghamshire residence on Friday to thrash out details of a white paper setting out the UK’s plans for Brexit on issues including trade and the future relationship with the EU.
But just days out from the summit, the Conservatives are still at war - with Rees-Mogg increasing the rift with a column some observers wish he’d never written. Tory grandee Sir Nicholas Soames wrote on Twitter that Rees-Mogg should “shut up”.
In a second tweet, Sir Nicholas added: “So let’s be clear: the Nation expects the PM and her Cabinet to come to a firm position on Brexit and to deliver the best arrangements that she can for our Country. If Members of her Cabinet don’t like it they shld leave #timetorisetothelevelofevents”.
The Conservative scraps have led to talk of a coup to overthrow May, with the PM facing repeated warnings that senior figures in her government are on manoeuvres in preparation for a leadership battle.
The Brexit Banana Peel - What’s Rees-Mogg On About?
Rees-Mogg warned May that backsliding could result in splitting the party like Sir Robert Peel, who plunged it into the political wilderness for nearly three decades following bitter divisions over trade reforms.
The chairman of the European Research Group of Brexit-backing Tories said: “Theresa May must stand firm for what she herself has promised.
“One former Tory leader, Sir Robert Peel, decided to break his manifesto pledge and passed legislation with the majority of his party voting the other way.
“This left the Conservatives out of office for 28 years.
“At least he did so for a policy that works. At Chequers (Mrs May) must stick to her righteous cause and deliver what she has said she would, she must use her undoubted grace to persevere.”
Rees-Mogg’s remarks add to comments made by former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who on Sunday dismissed the Chequers summit by saying May is “not intending to deliver” what Brexit voters want.
He told BBC One’s Sunday Politics: “It is a big sell-out, some would even say betrayal of what Brexit voters expected.”
He added: “She’s got a stronger hand of cards than the Eurosceptics have got. What the genuine Eurosceptics in Cabinet have to decide is, are they either going to walk away and resign or try and force her out as leader.”
How Have Rees-Mogg’s Comments Gone Down?
Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan accused Rees-Mogg of “insolence”, claiming his comments risked “debasing” the Government, the Tory Party and the country as a whole.
“The ideological right are a minority despite their noise and should pipe down,” he added.
Other commenters suggested the Brexit process would greatly benefit from less debate and MPs not putting “their own dogma above the good of the country and the Party”.
North Dorset MP Simon Hoare said “the hectoring nonsense” and “blackmail” has to stop.
He added that the Conservatives had to wake up to the reality of the parliamentary arithmetic and the potential “calamity” of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government.
Boris Backs Mogg
Later, in an extraordinary intervention, Boris Johnson defended Rees-Mogg - putting him at odds with a minister in his own department.
Johnson said: “It’s vital that all MPs are able to air their views on Brexit.
“Whatever your position, I hope we can all agree that Jacob Rees Mogg is a principled and dedicated MP who wants the best for our country.”
May has faced repeated warnings that senior figures in her government are on manoeuvres in preparation for a leadership battle.
The Customs Deal: Third Time Lucky?
Brexiteers oppose the PM’s favoured option of a customs partnership with the EU, which would see the UK collect tariffs set by the EU customs union on goods entering the country on behalf of the bloc.
Their “maximum facilitation” alternative would, rather than scrapping customs checks, use technology to minimise the need for them.
But there’s a problem: both options have been dismissed by the EU.
The BBC claims that the Government has now produced a third model for handling customs after Brexit which it says is on the agenda for Friday.
On Monday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson would not be drawn on the claims, saying only that: “There is going to be a lot of speculation between now and Chequers.
“Some of it might even be true but I’m not going to engage in advance of the away day taking place.”
Responding to Rees-Mogg’s comments, the spokesman said: “Our focus is on delivering the will of the British people.
“The Prime Minister has set out what she wants to achieve – that is to leave the single market, leave the customs union, leave the jurisdiction of the ECJ and be free to sign and implement trade deals around the world.”
Asked about the reported third customs model after a London speech on housing on Monday, Communities Secretary James Brokenshire said: “Both of them (the maximum facilitation and customs partnership models) had flaws within them and therefore I look forward to the discussions on Friday when we will consider the issues of customs and our broader partnership with the EU, moving forwards to produce the white paper.
“I remain confident that we will reach that consensus and the Government will see the publication of that white paper, delivering for our country, delivering on that strong Brexit that will provide the opportunities for the future.
“Therefore it is now about getting on with that and that’s what Friday is all about.”
Taking Care Of Business
Tory MP Vicky Ford – a former MEP and supporter of close ties to Europe – said there was no majority in Parliament for a no-deal Brexit, calling instead for a “pragmatic, workable solution that works for business”.
Ford told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What I would say to Jacob … is if this becomes a binary choice between staying in the single market and customs union or no deal, then I do not believe there is a majority for no deal.
“Therefore the bespoke, specific solutions that find a practical way that works for business, that works for our trade, that keeps market access and a partnership with Europe – that solution, which the Prime Minister has outlined many times, is a solution which we should support her to deliver.”
Ford’s comments come after the PM’s chief Brexit official reportedly told ministers they have no chance of striking a bespoke trade deal with Brussels.
Briefing Cabinet ministers ahead of the Chequers talks, Oliver Robbins is said to have painted a bleak picture of the situation, with a source telling The Times they came out of the meeting thinking “we were even more screwed than we were before”.
Former Conservative leader Lord Howard is more philosophical. He told the Today programme: “The Prime Minister has made a series of promises, the Prime Minister has repeatedly said that we must regain control of our laws, our money and our borders.
“I have great confidence in the Prime Minister. I am sure that she will deliver a Brexit that is entirely consistent with the promises she has made.”
Lord Howard said that the Government should take account of recent warnings from business of negative consequences from a bad Brexit deal, but added: “I think we should listen to business but we should also remember that business is divided.
“Quite a lot of big business doesn’t like change and has opposed all sorts of changes in the past. Although some parts of business don’t like change, the British people voted for change two years ago and any solution has to be consistent with that vote.
“When change comes, business will adapt as it always does and it will thrive and prosper and we will have the kind of exciting future that I’m sure awaits us when we have delivered Brexit.”
‘People Must Be Given The Choice’
Pro-EU campaigners, meanwhile, are concerned about the deal remaining on a knife-edge. Labour MP Virendra Sharma, a supporter of the Best for Britain campaign for a second referendum, said: “No deal would decimate our public services and see household incomes plunge. Jacob Rees-Mogg knows that.
“Politicians dogmatically supporting a ‘no deal’ outcome must come clean over the likely consequences and stop beating the drum for inevitable economic ruin.
“Their personal finances may be insulated from the shockwaves no deal would bring, but ordinary families up and down the country would pay a cruel price.”
Sharma said the Brexit decision must be put “back into the hands of the people through a public vote on the final Brexit deal”.
“People must be given the choice between the Brexit terms which May negotiates, or staying in our current bespoke deal with the EU,” she said.
The Brexit Extension
With much still to be decided before leaving the EU, Business Secretary Greg Clark and Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom have both refused to rule out an extension to transition arrangements in the face of demands from Tory backbenchers for the timetable to be maintained.
Clark said the decision must be “guided by the facts and the evidence” and Leadsom said December 2020 was not a “magical date”.
Clark, speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday, said: “At all times we need to be guided by the evidence on this, speaking to the people that run this very successful port (Dover) and the same with Eurotunnel in order to make sure that we can continue the success, and that we don’t have frictions there are things that would need to put in place, computer systems for example, posts at the border, even if they checked automatically number plates.”
Clark, however, ruled out any extension to Article 50.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said he believes the transition period after Brexit would be extended.
He told Sky News’ Ridge on Sunday: “At the moment it’s not set in stone, it’s talked around for two years.
“I’ve got a feeling it might go beyond that.”
Asked if he would be happy with that, he replied: “Yes.”
Corbyn sidestepped questions about whether he would rule out a second referendum, something proposed last Wednesday by former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Asked if he would back a second vote if the government came back with a bad deal, Corbyn told BBC One’s The Sunday Politics: “If there is a bad deal for Britain, or worse, no deal at all, or maybe they’re equally bad, it depends what the government comes up with, then we would vote against it and challenge it in parliament and hope to force a general election on that basis.”