This article was originally published in the Evening Standard on the 19th July 2018.
Who runs Britain? It is very clear that the answer at the end of this week is not the Prime Minister, nor is it the people of our country: it is Jacob Rees-Mogg. He has not been elected to be anything other than the MP for North-East Somerset and chair of the innocent-sounding European Research Group, but Rees-Mogg is exercising an outsized power. He lives a life quite apart from the rest of us.
Rees-Mogg and the ERG appear able to dictate terms to the Government about what is or is not an acceptable Brexit, easily the biggest issue, beyond questions of war and peace, that our Parliament has faced in the past half- century. In doing so they have been able to achieve what the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson could not — shredding the Government’s agreed policy.
Whether you voted Leave or Remain, you certainly didn’t vote to put Rees-Mogg in charge of your future or to allow him to create the conditions for a constitutional crisis and democratic failure.
The ERG is small: it comprises just 40 MPs, barely one in 20 members of the House of Commons. But, operating in the shadows, its power — directed through WhatsApp and stretching across Whitehall into ministerial offices as well as along the Conservative backbenches, is very real.
The Government is not just being undermined by the ERG, it is being taken over. Government whips have become agents of Rees-Mogg and the ERG’s force-multiplier, even bullying and intimidating Conservative MPs who wanted to stick by the terms of the Chequers plan while letting those who were actively working to destroy it get away with everything.
The latest low point was reached this week when the whips seemed to have encouraged Brandon Lewis to break his pairing agreement with Jo Swinson, who was at home nursing a newborn child. Such underhand and untrust-worthy behaviour is just another sign of how harmful this debate has become to standards in public life.
The ERG got its way in the Commons but it has led the Government into a weaker position than ever when it comes to EU negotiations. Tomorrow, representatives of the EU27 are likely to be as polite as good Europeans can be in their response to the Government over Brexit, but the most significant sign of their real views is the visible stepping up of preparations for a no- deal Brexit.
Even the Irish government, representing perhaps the one country most immediately at risk from the chaos and economic catastrophe that a no-deal crash-out would bring, has ordered the recruitment of hundreds more customs officers: a sign that it expects a hard border is coming, perhaps the worst news to hit the Irish peace process in two decades.
The big driver for no deal is not going to be the will of Parliament but the lack of clear will coming out of Westminster. There appears to be no majority either for the battered Chequers proposals or for any other formulation of Brexit. If our Parliament is gridlocked and the EU27 effectively finds itself with nothing to negotiate about, there is a clear danger that we will slip into a no- deal Brexit — not through choice but because we are unable to make a choice.
The Labour leadership, too, is failing its voters, party members and the country over Brexit. Despite overwhelming evidence that people are crying out for bold and principled opposition to the Brexit process, Labour’s leader has at times resembled a passive observer.
Faced with the chance to secure our membership of the single market, they instead travelled to a fantasy land — so often visited by Boris Johnson — where inhabitants pretend to have their cake and eat it by claiming the UK could get all the advantages of membership without having to meet any of the obligations.
Still worse was watching four Labour MPs (and one who is currently suspended by the party) save the Government from defeat on the customs union and bail out a Conservative Prime Minister in hock to her own Brextremist rump.
In these bizarre and troubling circumstances some might be tempted to give up hope in democracy and Parliament. But they would be wrong. Parliament can still save its reputation and end the undemocratic capture of the Government by a tiny number of unrepresentative MPs. It will require bravery from across the parties to decide that we must have a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal, and that is needed now more than ever.
This is not a desperate effort to frustrate the will of the electorate. It would hand control of this botched process back to the people and be a genuine solution to a crisis that is threatening to overwhelm not only our Government but our democracy.
Whether you voted Leave or Remain, you didn’t vote for this mess or for a stricken Government held hostage by extremists. That is why citizens from all walks of life and every region and nation of our country are joining our campaign for a People’s Vote.
They have every right — a democratic right — to demand their voice is heard on any final Brexit proposal. Parliament must act with courage to grant the public this right. And an ever-growing number of MPs from all sides of the House are concluding that a People’s Vote is now the only way forward.