What We Heard at Jacob Rees-Mogg's Latest Meeting of Hard-Brexit Cranks
The constitution is in crisis and there's only one way out: something convoluted involving the Queen and some Maoists.
Jacob Rees-Mogg. Photos: VICE
On Wednesday, an ageing crowd gathered under a large projection of a countdown to the 29th of March – "freedom day", as Brexiteers call it. You couldn't help but think it looked a bit like the clock on a time-bomb ready to explode the whole country.
The crowd was there for a meeting of the Bruges Group, a right-wing think-tank that sits on the part of the political spectrum where the Tories meet UKIP, and which – VICE revealed – sold booklets containing far-right conspiracy theory at the last Conservative Party conference. The Bruges Group is named after a famous Maggie Thatcher speech where she laid into the EU, setting us on the road to Brexit.
The star turn was Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Victoriana enthusiast and chair of the European Research Group, the Conservative Party's hard-Brexit awkward squad. He was warmed up by Roger Bootle, an economist who said he was fed up of business people dominating a question about sovereignty, before proceeding to make a lot of business arguments for Brexit.
Jacob Rees-Mogg was then welcomed to speak by Barry Legg, chairman of the Bruges Group, with an introduction that bordered on beatification. Apparently Rees Mogg is "a beacon of hope for those that believe in maintenance of Conservative values and the timelessness of their benefits".
"He invariably conducts himself in a way which displays a modest demeanour – some might say too modest," Legg simpered. "Ladies and gentlemen, we often overuse superlatives, but today I ask you to welcome one of the most outstanding Parliamentarians of our time and the truest of conservatives. Ladies and gentlemen, Jacob Rees-Mogg."
JR-M took to the lectern and started a speech that turned out to be less like his chlorinated chicken vs project fear patter of the past. There was, however, the usual blithe assurance that a no-deal exit would be fine, from a man who has a investment firm in Dublin (which is nothing to do with Brexit, says the firm) from which he draws around £14,500 a month. There was the same railing against a backstop. But it was mainly about how Brexit is being betrayed and how he wants to use "vestigial constitutional means" to stop Parliament wrestling control of the Brexit process from Theresa May’s government. "By which I basically mean prorogation," he said.
Prorogation means ending the current parliamentary session so that no more legislation can be passed. That would mean nobody could pass a bill to delay Article 50 and stop a no-deal happening. In Rees-Mogg's view, that would mean MPs voting to "thwart what they themselves voted for, and this would be a constitutional outrage".
"In 1832, when they were going through the Reform Bill, there was an occasion when it was thought necessary that the King might have to come in person to dissolve Parliament… I hope it will not be necessary for Her Majesty’s stay at Sandringham for her in person to prorogue Parliament," he said. Only Jacob Rees-Mogg could take a constitutional crisis and turn it into a fantasy about how nanny will come to naughty Parliament and spank everyone's bottoms until they behave.
It's indicative of our constitutional clusterfuck that a politician can evoke the will of the people in one sentence and call for Parliament to be suspended by the Queen in the next. But it's not just Rees-Mogg; all over Westminster, straws are being grasped at, and it's all someone else's fault.
In Parliament on Wednesday, Brexiteer Tory Peter Bone MP complained that the government is full of Remainers, and challenged Theresa May: "Would you replace them from colleagues from these benches who actually believe in upholding the decision of the British people to leave the European Union on the 29th March?" This is despite the fact that Theresa May did exactly that two years ago and was met with a stream of resignations as Brexiteers met the reality of Brexit – David Davis, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and others.
On Thursday, MPs from the People’s Vote campaign announced that they would not be tabling an amendment on a second referendum because they don't have the backing of Jeremy Corbyn. "We could have the numbers if we had the unequivocal support of Jeremy Corbyn," Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative Remainer MP, is reported to have said.
Not only does this seem a bit of a reach – they might not have had the numbers with Corbyn's support – it's also a strange reaction to the failure of a campaign that has been plagued by internal disagreements over tactics, as well as the sheer odiousness of some its key members, such as Lord Peter Mandelson who – as VICE revealed – publicly called for a People’s Vote while telling potential business clients that Brexit is inevitable.
As the hardcore Brexit and Remain ultra unicorns stumble, one possibility is that Labour will whip its MPs to support an amendment put forward by Yvette Cooper MP to delay Article 50, effectively stopping a no-deal Brexit until something vaguely coherent can be sorted out.
In Brexit's increasingly confusing game of Parliamentary Tetris, one of the certainties is that a majority of MPs don't want to risk a no-deal. Theresa May has kicked the can down the road until this point, and now it's everyone else’s turn. That’s why Rees-Mogg was evoking arcane constitutional measures involving the monarch.
"Tick-tock goes the clock – as it ticks down we get closer to leaving, and when we leave we have taken back control, we are in charge," Rees-Mogg told his audience. Hard Brexiteers are ultimately still hoping that time simply runs out and they get what they want by default. But it's possible that the clock may stop ticking soon.
So where does that leave poor Jacob and the advocates of hard Brexit?
Perhaps the answer lies in a leaflet entitled "A clean Brexit now! Seize control!" handed out to Bruges Group attendees as they entered the meeting. It extolled them to hold firm and reclaim our national sovereignty, now that "project fear has become project absurd hysteria". Any Brexit difficulties "pale into insignificance against the prospect of remaining shackled to a declining European Union which is desperately trying to grab more and more centralising powers in the impossible attempt to manage the growing roar of rejection from its own member citizens. Away with dismal defeatism! We can be confident – it’s in our hands."
These words wouldn't have been out of place in Rees-Mogg’s speech, but were in fact from a leaflet from the Communist Party of Great Britain – Marxist-Leninist (CPGB-ML), a weird sect whose previous pronouncements include that "LGBT ideology" is "reactionary". They seem now to be presenting themselves as hard-Lexit ultras, looking at Brexit’s hall of mirrors through the kaleidoscope of simplistic anti-imperialism. It brings to mind Britain as a sort of Palestine, struggling under the rule of an oppressive Brussels-based Israeli regime.
Rees-Mogg joked that it took a while for him to realise it was a communist leaflet because it was "pretty sound on the European stuff". Could this be Brexit's latest shotgun wedding? Perhaps, when Brexit gets delayed, or a soft Brexit passes, Jacob Rees Mogg's Hard-Brexit Maoist cadres will buy a few shipments of AK-47s with Dublin investment fund money and take to the highlands, waiting to launch the No Deal Revolution.