It seems that a week can’t go by without the European Research Group (ERG) issuing another thinly-veiled threat to the Prime Minister. Whether it’s on the date of our departure, how much the Brexit divorce bill should cost, or, as we have seen over the last few days, on our future customs arrangement with the EU27, Jacob Ress-Mogg and his loyal pack of hardliners are perfectly willing to make Theresa May walk the plank to achieve their narrow, ideologically driven vision.
We should join Justine Greening in calling this out for what it is: harmful bully boy tactics. As a minority group – which, be in no doubt, the ERG is, both within the Conservative Parliamentary Party and across the broader spectrum of its membership – its jingoistic fantasies have been allowed to flourish for far too long, hurting the Tories and, more importantly, the country, in the process.
Fair play, the Group has a knack of making a good press splash, and from a small cabal of Eurosceptics voicing their concerns on the Maastrict Treaty in the early 1990s, it has grown its influence to a point where it is now in a position to strong-arm the Government, albeit a weak one, to bend to its will.Like all populists, it does so by exploiting the emotions (hopes, and, more importantly, fears) of ‘the people’, who it purports to serve. It thrives in our post-truth age, with its ready acceptance of fiction over fact.
The ERG’s approach to the Customs Union has been a masterclass in collective policy making on the hoof. Flimflam assertions followed by a subsequent, intentional distancing of its earlier position to suit a new, emboldened aim, in this case a complete break with the EU. Those with the temerity to remind ERG members of this shift in tone – or, for that matter, anyone with the good sense to propose policy based on fact, not feeling – are castigated as agents of the ‘Establishment’, bitter Remoaners harnessing ‘Project Fear’ to keep the electorate shackled to an undemocratic EU.
The question of our future relationship with the Customs Union was bizarrely barely mentioned during the Referendum campaign, let alone properly debated, but when it was, very few, including prominent Leavers, were in favour of turning their back on it. Yet now, even a whisper in support of its merits is branded heresy in some circles.
The public debate on this issue has so far been unedifying. The ERG would have us believe that there are business-friendly solutions aplenty that will minimise disruption at the Northern Ireland border, despite almost all independent analysis concluding that current technological capabilities mean this remains a pipedream at best. We’re told that other non-member states have frictionless trade with the EU (in full knowledge that the EFTA nations – Norway, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Iceland – are, through the EEA Agreement or bilateral treaties, members of the Single Market, meaning checks aren’t necessary as regulatory standards are aligned). From being reassured that crossing the border would be as easy as moving between Camden and Westminster, there’s now the creeping admission that some infrastructure will be necessary. Unfortunately, there’s no sign that the deliberate downplaying of this dilemma with end anytime soon.
It is these people that pushed hardest for Britain to reclaim its sovereignty from an unaccountable, bureaucratic elite during the Referendum campaign, but it is they that are now holding the Government hostage, taking it upon themselves to decide, with no mandate whatsoever, what is in the nation’s best interests.
Innocent pleas from the ERG that it’s simply ensuring the Prime Minister keeps to her earlier promises are again playing fast and loose with the truth. In both her Lancaster House and Mansion House speeches the Prime Minister floated the idea of a future customs agreement with the EU in some form, and last year’s Conservative Party Manifesto was explicit in its commitment to ‘seek a deep and special partnership [with the EU], including a comprehensive free trade and customs arrangement.’ There seems to be a shared amnesia in some parts of the Conservative Party to these salient facts.
Anyone who values democracy ought to respect the Referendum result and Brexit must ultimately be delivered. But to do so on the ERG’s terms risks alienating moderate Tories, many of whom are the young bright sparks the Party so desperately needs to recapture an almost totally depleted youth vote. Its approach to the Customs Union has displayed a cynical opportunism that taps into people’s mistrust of Whitehall’s commitment to Brexit, distorting the facts to peddle its own hardened aims. No10’s policy of appeasement must come to an end.