Have the Conservative party's Eurosceptics blown Brexit?

FT, January 18, 2019

by George Parker & Alex Barker

Within hours of Theresa May suffering the biggest House of Commons defeat by any prime minister in history, a group of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs were toasting the obliteration of her Brexit deal at a champagne reception, hosted by the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Mr Rees-Mogg distributed flutes of bubbly to the 30 or so guests as they arrived on Tuesday night at his London townhouse — five minutes from parliament — to take stock of the momentous vote, which blew a gaping hole in Mrs May’s Brexit strategy. “It was a party and a celebration,” says Bill Cash, an MP and veteran anti-Brussels campaigner.

For Eurosceptics, the prospect of a clean break had moved a step closer. Mr Rees-Mogg insists Britain will leave the EU on March 29 regardless of whether Mrs May can resuscitate her deal. “A no-deal outcome is the most likely outcome,” he says.

But behind the smiles and the outward show of confidence, a small number of Brexiters were starting to feel slightly queasy: would history record the defeat of Mrs May’s compromise plan not as a Eurosceptic triumph, but as the moment when they lost Brexit?

“People are getting a bit twitchy about whether or not we could lose everything,” says a moderate Brexiter, one of 118 Conservatives who joined with Labour and other opposition parties to vote against the deal. “I am getting more worried we won’t be able to deliver Brexit.”

Brexiters are right to be worried. At the same time as the champagne corks were popping at Mr Rees-Mogg’s house, pro-Europeans were also celebrating Mrs May’s defeat: they now sense a golden chance to seize Brexit and move it in a completely different direction.

Two-thirds of Britain’s MPs supported Remain in the 2016 referendum; many will take the chance in the next two weeks to use parliamentary devices to insist that Mrs May rules out a “no deal” exit or keeps Britain in a permanent customs union or the single market. Some want to reverse Brexit altogether in a second referendum.

Chris Leslie, a senior Labour MP who wants to overturn Brexit in a “people’s vote”, cheerfully claimed on Tuesday that the tide was now running strongly in his favour. His comments drew an icy smile from Bernard Jenkin, a hardened Eurosceptic: “If you try to stop Brexit, you will unleash hell.”

Mrs May has spent the past two years trying to avoid splitting her party. Her Brexit deal, the result of painstaking negotiations in Brussels, bore all the hallmarks of someone trying to bang square pegs into round holes. In the end her compromise deal ended up pleasing hardly anyone.

“We weren’t getting Brexit with Mrs May’s deal,” says Mr Rees-Mogg, who argues that a package of regulatory alignment and a proposed “temporary” customs union to avoid a return to a hard border in Ireland would leave Britain as a “slave state”. His European Research Group counts around 60-80 Tory Brexiters as members.

The problem for the Brexiters comes down to parliamentary arithmetic. They represent at most 15 per cent of the 650 MPs in the House of Commons; they can create chaos for Mrs May’s enfeebled minority government, but they cannot impose a hard Brexit on a pro-European legislature.

The new reality was summed up by Philip Hammond, chancellor, who on Tuesday night called business leaders to reassure them that MPs would force Mrs May to halt a no-deal exit, pushing Brexit beyond March 29. “A large majority in the Commons is opposed to no deal under any circumstances,” he said.

Pausing Brexit is only the first battle in a war being planned by the pro-Europeans. Cabinet members including Mr Hammond and Greg Clark, business secretary, favour keeping Britain in a permanent customs union. 

If Mrs May resists or parliament is unable to find a way forward, the debate could then move quickly on to a second EU referendum. Some cabinet ministers argue that a general election could be the only way out of the impasse. Either option could see Brexit reversed.

In short, it is hard to see how things get any better for the Eurosceptics from here. That is why Tory Brexiters cling to the belief that even if the parliamentary odds are stacked against them, the clock is on their side; they say Britain must leave the EU on March 29 because it is ordained in UK law and Article 50 of the EU treaty.

But MPs are plotting legislation to force the government to delay Brexit by extending Article 50 and the Commons Speaker John Bercow has shown his willingness to help MPs get the upper hand over a stubborn May government.

Some believe the Brexiters’ faith in a no-deal exit is no longer rational. “No-dealers continue to fight, but they increasingly resemble Teruo Nakamura, the Japanese soldier who carried on fighting the second world war until 1974,” wrote Nick Timothy, Mrs May’s former chief of staff, in his column in The Daily Telegraph.

If Eurosceptics come to accept that the hard Brexit they favour will be blocked by parliament, what will they do next? Mrs May still hopes that some of them will finally support her crippled deal, rather than risk Brexit being snatched away from them.

The prime minister seems to believe that if Brussels could only give her some legal undertakings that the Irish backstop really would be “temporary”, some of Mr Rees-Mogg’s group would support her deal. Perhaps, although there are probably 30-40 MPs who would never back the deal unless the backstop was scrapped altogether.

But Brussels has made it clear that will not happen and the scale of Mrs May’s defeat this week has changed the politics in EU circles: what is the point of offering small concessions when they will never overturn a 230 vote deficit at Westminster?

There is also a much bigger debate roaring behind the scenes after this week’s seismic vote: Britain’s helplessness is making some countries re-evaluate their tactics and goals. There is an elephant in the room: rather than trying to buy off Mr Rees-Mogg, should the EU be trying to help those who want to avoid Brexit altogether?

The scenario of a second referendum, dismissed as a pipe dream in Brussels just a few months ago, is now as realistic as any under discussion. Should the EU offer more concessions to push a deal through, or stand firm in the hope of bolstering the Remainers?

There is far from a consensus on the issue, either within or between governments. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, was once a lone voice in championing a change of British mind. In a Tuesday tweet breaking ranks from a jointly agreed EU line, he called on Britain to have the “courage to say what the only positive solution is” — staying in the EU. 

Others are less convinced. French officials hold reservations. Some Brexit negotiators also see Britain’s return as a poisoned chalice, importing an unresolved political war into the union. “We won’t just be rewinding the clock to June 23 [2016]. It’s a different UK and a different EU,” says one EU ambassador.

Timing is also a factor. Negotiators expect Britain to ask for an extension to Article 50 and are assessing whether a short one (to July) or a long one (to the end of the year) would be better. 

Those minded to go longer see it as a way to avoid an “unbearable” Brexit psychodrama, stretching out over the year in three-month extensions. The big hurdle is European elections in May, and whether Britain’s non-participation would fatally undermine the legitimacy of the new European Parliament, which will be inaugurated in July.

Senior EU officials expect the 27 prime ministers and presidents of the union to largely welcome the idea of Britain coming back into the fold. “But the longer the process lasts, the more the patience wears thin,” says one senior official. “And it gives rise to more people saying: do we really want them back?”

Mr Rees-Mogg argues that for all the talk of Mrs May reaching out to opposition parties to find a different Brexit route, in the end there may turn out to be no Commons majority for any of them. “Unless an act of parliament can be passed, we leave on March 29,” he says. “That default is still there.”

Privately some Eurosceptics mutter that if Mrs May puts Brexit on hold or tacks to a softer exit, then a group of 30 or 40 Tory MPs would sabotage every piece of government legislation; one has been overheard threatening to vote down his own government. “There will be Armageddon,” says one Brexiter.

But senior Tories are urging Mrs May to finally confront the Eurosceptics, whom they believe have made a major strategic error in opposing her deal. “They fucked it up,” says Anna Soubry, former business minister and leading Remain MP. 

Chris Patten, the former Tory chairman, says: “You can’t have a halfway decent deal in the national interest unless you have a row with the Eurosceptics in the Conservative party.”

A Tory member since her teens, Mrs May does not intend to be the leader who splits her party. Since this week’s defeat, her strategy still seems to be to try to bring Tory Brexiters and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists back on board, rather than make a bold move into the centre.

But pro-Europeans have lost patience. Even mainstream members of the cabinet admit that the strains imposed on the party could end up ripping it apart. 

Tobias Ellwood, a defence minister, says the Eurosceptics were “isolated in the party and isolated in parliament”. One minister says Mrs May must tack to a soft Brexit now: “It might split the party, but we’re split already.