Tory divisions over Brexit have been starkly exposed by the backbench Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has stepped up his condemnation of Theresa May’s approach to leaving the European Union, accusing the government of being “cowed” by Brussels.
While the chancellor, Philip Hammond, was in Davos, telling business leaders he hoped the EU and Britain would only move “modestly” apart over the years ahead, Rees-Mogg used a speech in Hampshire to urge the government to take a tougher line in talks with the EU27.
“For too long our negotiators seemed to have been cowed by the EU,” he said.
“Their approach seems to be that we must accept what the EU will allow us to do and build from there. This is no way to negotiate and it is no way for this country to behave.”
Rees-Mogg chairs the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Tory MPs. He warned against allowing Brexit to become “only a damage limitation exercise”, arguing: “The British people did not vote for that. They did not vote for the management of decline. They voted for hope and opportunity and politicians must now deliver it.”
His combative tone, which follows a clash with the Brexit secretary, David Davis, at the House of Commons Brexit committee on Wednesday, underlines the fact that Eurosceptic MPs have become increasingly concerned about the government’s direction, and determined to press their point home publicly.
In particular, Rees-Mogg, who drew large crowds at last year’s party conference, and topped a recent poll of Conservative members, stressed that Britain must leave the customs union: an issue on which Brexiters fear there has been backsliding inside government.
“The negotiations that are about to begin sound as if they aim to keep us in a similar system to the single market and the customs union,” Rees Mogg said.
“‘Close alignment’ means, de facto, the single market – it would make the UK a rule taker like Norway, divested of even the limited influence we currently have.”
Rees-Mogg was elected as the new chair of the ERG after the previous incumbent, Suella Fernandes, was given a government post in this month’s reshuffle.
The highly organised group of vocal backbench MPs largely fell into line behind key aspects of the prime minister’s negotiating strategy, including the “exit bill” of more than £30bn.
But they are in restive mood, after May’s reshuffle earlier this month disappointed expectations that former chair and Department for Exiting the European Union minister Steve Baker would be allowed to attend cabinet.
The promotion of former Europe minister David Lidington to the heart of Downing Street as first secretary of state also alarmed MPs wary of Brexit being unravelled; and remarks by Philip Hammond at the world economic forum in Davos increased fears that the mood in government has shifted towards a softer Brexit.
Hammond told business leaders: “Instead of doing what we’re normally doing in the trade negotiations – taking two divergent economies with low levels of trade and trying to bring them closer together to enhance that trade – we are taking two completely interconnected and aligned economies with high levels of trade between them, and selectively moving them, hopefully very modestly, apart.
“And so we should be confident of reaching something much more ambitious than any free trade agreement has ever achieved.”
The Labour MP Stephen Doughty, of pro-EU campaign group Open Britain, said: “Theresa May is losing control of the Brexit process. Not only has she completely alienated pro-Europeans, she now has Brexit extremists on her own backbenches like Jacob Rees-Mogg, as well as members of her own cabinet, growing increasingly undisciplined.”
This article was written by Heather Stewart Political editor, for theguardian.com on Thursday 25th January 2018 19.13 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010