Jacob Rees-Mogg stares straight ahead through his owlish glasses when asked the question gripping Downing Street as Brexit talks enter their endgame: will he and his fellow Eurosceptic Tories blink?
The leader of the 60-strong European Research Group, the pro-Brexit group of Tory MPs that could hold the fate of the country in its hands, insisted that if Theresa May capitulated to unacceptable Brussels demands, they would vote down her deal.
“I’m not the most hardline member of the ERG,” he said, still holding his gaze. “By the time you get to me there are several dozen members that are more hardline than me. And I’m not going to blink.”
Mrs May now faces one of the biggest calls of her political career: a deal may be within reach in Brussels this weekend, but can she sell it in the House of Commons and to her party’s hardcore of Brexit true-believers?
Must be an end date to Brexit transition
Mr Rees-Mogg said Mrs May cannot leave Britain tied to the customs union indefinitely and there must be a firm end date to any transitional arrangement. “Of course there must be an end date,” he told the Financial Times in an interview.
The EU is refusing to set a precise date, raising fears among Eurosceptics that Britain could be trapped in the customs union for ever — and certainly beyond the next general election, scheduled for 2022.
“The election is much too late,” Mr Rees-Mogg said. “You see the further off you set the end date, the less likely it is ever to end. The historical precedents are that end dates even when specified are not necessarily end dates.”
He declined to specify how many Tory MPs he thinks would vote against a deal that kept Britain in an open-ended “temporary” customs union, but said: “Whenever we count the numbers, we are always pleasantly surprised at how many there are.”
Mrs May faces a double headache because pro-Brexit Northern Ireland unionist MPs, who prop up her government have vowed to bring her down if she agrees to an outline deal that would treat the region differently to the rest of the UK.
ERG has ‘coalition of interest’ with unionists
Mr Rees-Mogg acknowledged there is “a coalition of interest” with the Democratic Unionist party, but added: “There’s not a formal caucus or even an informal caucus.”
He insisted that if MPs voted down Mrs May’s deal, Britain would leave the EU without a deal, on World Trade Organization terms. He added that it would not — as Downing Street has warned — mean that Brexit might not happen at all.
This week Ivan Rogers, Britain’s former EU ambassador, called Mr Rees-Mogg and his colleagues “the pinstriped Robespierres of the Committee of Public Safety”, claiming Eurosceptics were turning against each other: “The revolution starts to eat its own.”
Certainly Mr Rees-Mogg has no time for the theory expounded by fellow Brexiter, environment secretary Michael Gove, that Leave supporters should accept any deal now and improve it later. “It’s absurd,” he said, adding there will be no great appetite for a big new negotiation after Brexit next March.
Ominously for Mrs May, Mr Rees-Mogg said that some Tory Eurosceptics MPs are talking about joining the DUP in voting down non-European government business as part of a wider Brexit protest. Votes on the forthcoming Budget could become a flashpoint.
“There are some people within the ERG who have thought of this approach,” he said, before hastily adding: “Tiny numbers.”
Brexit is ‘rather exciting’
Mr Rees-Mogg’s group believes Britain should aim to break free from the EU’s orbit and strike a looser Canada-style trade deal. Its members dismiss claims from Brussels and Number 10 that this could necessitate a new hard border in Ireland.
The 49-year-old Eton-educated Tory MP, who co-founded Somerset Capital Management, an investment company, insisted Brexit is “really rather exciting”.
He believes Mrs May is a remainer at heart. “She still can’t say she would have voted Leave if the vote was rerun,” he said. But he reserved his greatest scorn for Mark Carney, Bank of England governor, whom he claims has compromised the bank’s independence with his warnings about the economic impact of Brexit. Mr Carney denies the charge.
Mr Rees-Mogg also thinks the Treasury talked “absolute rubbish” on Brexit.
But he revealed that he has half an eye on taking on another venerable British institution: the speakership of the House of Commons.
An enthusiast for dusty tomes on parliamentary procedure, he said he is not likely to become prime minister, but asked if he would like to take the Commons chair, he said wistfully: “One day.” Then in the same breath, he added the proviso: “The difficulty is I love day-to-day political controversy — could I give it up?”
Additional reporting by Solape Alatise
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