To understand Brexit must involve appreciating the powerful Brexiteer faction that has such a strong grip on the Conservative Party. A bit like Momentum with Labour and Corbyn, the Brexiteers seem now able to dictate to May’s government what her approach to Brexit should be, and are in effect now the driving force behind the slow-motion revolution that is Brexit. But who are they and what do they want?
The power of the Brexiteer faction in the Conservative Party was dramatically illustrated this week with May’s volte face on the Trade and Customs bills. The amendments tabled by the European Research Group (ERG) of MP’s forced May to contradict her recent and hard-fought White Paper on trade negotiations with the EU, and make it far less likely to secure EU agreement and thus more likely that there will be a no-deal Brexit next March
Who are the Brexiteers?
Parliament is predominantly a Remain one, in that most MP’s supported the Remain side in the 2016 referendum, but many of the latter have with varying degrees of reluctance chosen to vote through the Brexit legislation. However they are divided as to how hard Brexit should be. The ERG however are the champions of what they see as the “people’s vote”, the guardians of the revolution, arguing that as May has said “Brexit means Brexit”, that is separation from the institutions of the EU, leaving the single market and customs union, being no longer subject to the European Court of Justice, free to negotiate trade deals, have control over immigration, and so on. The ERG favour a “hard Brexit” of a free trade deal on the lines of Canada’s and if no agreement then leaving and reverting to trade with the EU on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms.
The ERG is a right wing faction and is led by Jacob Rees-Mogg (JRM). Among its members are people like Steven Baker, Bill Cash, and Ian Duncan-Smith. Numbers are variously estimated but over 60 sounds more convincing. They are tightly organised, which gives the lie to the old notion that the Tories were more united than Labour and were the party of tendencies rather than factions. Before May’s Cabinet awayday at Chequers to agree a Brexit negotiating position on 3 July 2018 they held a meeting to plan tactics, and have ruthlessly executed them, making annoucements, tabling amendments and a steady drip-feed of resignations from the government. They are idealistic, committed and very determined. Not other grouping in Parliament comes anywhere near to their capabilities.
Ruthlessness is one key characteristic.They are very clear that May should be prepared to walk away if the EU won’t compromise and carry out her and their threat of a no-deal exit, with all the economic damage, for the EU and more so for the UK, that that would entail. Critics and opponents are dubbed “traitors”, “enemies of the people”, and “betrayers”. There is a powerful sense of anger and of victimhood, that a metropolitan political elite is trying to subvert the clearly stated will of a majority of voters and prevent what should rightfully be their’s. Thus rational arguments based on research and expertise are shouted down, in an almost intimidating fashion, the Brexiteers preferring emotion and belief. A new political sub-culture has emerged.
That approach should be seen in the context of a more authoritarian tendency within the Tory government since 2015. Thus lobbying laws have been changed to restrict lobbying by charities and NGO’s, while leaving virtually untouched that by business and financial interests. The payment of the “political levy” by trade unionists that are members of the Labour Party has been changed (2016) such that members must “opt-in” to pay a contribution to the Labour Party rather than “opt out”, thus considerably reducing Labour’s income from this source. The Withdrawal Act of 2018 gives ministers so-called “Henry VIII powers” to change EU laws being returned to the UK under Brexit without Parliamentary primary legislation but instead by secondary legislation, called Statutory Instruments. There are also proposals to introduce voter ID in elections, which would make it more difficult for people to to vote who are poorer, disabled or minority ethnic. There is a sense of Tory politicians redrawing the political map to the disadvantage of their opponents.
The completion of the Thatcher revolution
This phalanx in Parliament can be called “Thatcher’s children”, in that they are generationally from those who came into political awareness in the 1980’s. There has been a steady trend towards more right-wing MP’s coming into Parliament in the last decade. To the ERG, it is all about completing what Mrs Thatcher started. There’s a bit of the “stab in the back” myth here, since many consider the overthrough of Mrs Thatcher and the Maastricht Treaty which set this faction going was a stab in the back by liberal Tory traitors led by John Major. The fear is of another “stab in the back” from the Remain side.
Thus the ERG have a longer-term neo-liberal project for the “renovation” of the UK. It isn’t widely discussed in public, since the focus till now has been Brexit and because many ideas could in themselves be electoral suicide. However Brexit is only the means to a broader transformation to realise the Brexiteer vision of a free trade, de-regulated, entrepreneurial nation unshackled by the bureaucracy of the EU. This vision includes reducing taxes further (always a Tory goal), shrinking the state, reducing the welfare state further, and privatising the NHS. This would be a “leaner, fitter” Britain, where the costs of doing business would have been reduced, probably necessitated by the economic straits that would face the UK on Brexit, and thus more able to compete in world markets. Thus there would no fears in a big fall in Sterling since it would make the UK more competitive, but cuts in spending would ensue. A trade deal with the US that is both sought for by Brexiters and necessitated by the loss of the EU market would require this de-regulation.
Shadowy neo-liberal backers
A striking tendency in this era is for parties to have backers who remain in the shadows but contribute to a party’s finances and also to its ideas and its thinking. One such example is the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a hard-Brexit pressure group influenced by the neo-liberal economic ideas of Friedrich Hayek. Two recent appointments as ministers, Dominic Raab and Matthew Hancock were linked with the IEA. The IEA brought out an alternative White Paper called “Freedom to Flourish” after May’s Chequers awayday, arguing for the neo-liberal ideas discussed above. One difficulty with the IEA is that it is not clear who it works for and who are its backers.
The power, influence and determination of the ERG should not be under-estimated. Unfortunately from a Remain perspective, they have not been countered by opponents of equal ruthlessness. It reminds me of what my tutor at Oxford used to say about the European right: when they are well-organised, they are unstoppable. The pro-Remain Tories for example are by contrast reasonable and mild-mannered, no match for the Leninist revolutionaries about to storm the Winter Palace of Westminster, a small group but very effective.