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May and the ERG Ultras are manacled together.


Professor Chris Grey writes about the relationship between Theresa May and the ultra-Brexiteers who are holding the government, and Britain, to ransom.


There are perhaps 50 - I have seen estimates varying between 40 and 80 - Tory MPs in the so-called European Research Group (ERG; ‘so-called’ as this is not some anodyne bunch of researchers, but a group of fanatical, extremist ideologues). They include several Ministers, perhaps nine Cabinet members, and many of the media’s darlings for Brexit commentary including, of course, the ERG’s current chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg. Even before becoming its leader he seemed to appear on the BBC quite as often as any of the Corporation’s most senior journalists. Now, he might as well have his own dedicated studio. It is this group of, for the most part, middle-aged white men who are holding the government, and hence our country, to ransom. They speak – they speak splenetically - for themselves and no doubt some, possibly many, leave voters, but they purport to speak for all leave voters and hence, of course, for ‘the People’.

May made a fatal miscalculation in thinking that the Ultras would be appeased by hard Brexit. As Major and Cameron had found before her, every concession made to them only produced a new and even more extreme demand. Thus whereas before the Referendum many of them said that a soft Brexit (i.e. staying in the single market and having a comprehensive customs treaty) would be enough, immediately afterwards they insisted that only hard Brexit would do. But when that became the government’s policy, they started agitating for a no deal Brexit. Some of them, such as Nadine Dorries, seem to have no idea what they are advocating or why. It might be thought that Dorries is an outlier and that all the other members are well-apprised of the practical meanings of hard Brexit, but a glance at the list of their names suggests that this might be excessively charitable.

By promising hard Brexit at the point that she was politically strongest, May created an impossible situation which has become clear now that she is so weak. What she accepted was that the lies of the Leave campaign could be made true. That is, that it would be possible to have all of the economic benefits of being in the EU without any of the politically unpalatable consequences in terms of, in particular, free movement of people and ECJ jurisdiction. This could never be delivered, not because the EU would never agree to it, but because they couldn’t agree to it since it was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the single market is: an entity which by definition entails free movement and which by definition requires a supra-national regulator.

Trapped by her own choices into delivering an undeliverable policy, May is now stuck. She can’t easily retreat from hard Brexit having promised it, and she can’t follow the ERG punks to a no deal Brexit without comprehensively wrecking the British economy – meaning not just mass unemployment but the end of air travel and the introduction of food rationing that would occur as a consequence of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. The Ultras don’t care about that – some of them probably believe it would be a good way of toughening us up – but for anyone with any remote sense of public duty, let alone any political nous, it’s a complete non-starter. In recent weeks it seems as if business leaders and civil servants have convinced May of this.

It’s against this background that the various storms and spats of the last week are to be understood. As predicted in my previous post, the quiet period of recent weeks has come to an abrupt end. The leak of the government’s economic forecasts produced no real surprises. They are in line with what most previous forecasts have suggested in showing that all forms of Brexit are economically damaging, and the harder the Brexit, the greater the damage. But the response underscored just how rabid the Ultras have become, denouncing not just the forecasts themselves but impugning the motives of the civil servants who prepared them. Such criticism of the civil service was always inevitable, as I have said since the first post on the blog, and has been bubbling away for a while. But as the realities bite they are becoming more vociferous, and although Steve Baker (former ERG Chair, now DExEU Minister) had to apologise for having voiced them in the House of Commons there can surely be little doubt that many Brexit Ultras are convinced that the civil service is part of a great remainer elite conspiracy.


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But the more vociferous the Ultras become the greater the sense that events are moving away from them. The response to the leaked economic forecasts as a new instalment of ‘Project Fear’ is not just predictable, it’s shop-soiled; whilst the Will of the People in which they have so successfully cloaked themselves now looks distinctly moth-eaten. Time has taken its toll on the Ultras mainly because just as having agitated for a Referendum for years they were unable to produce a plan for how Brexit should be done, so too have they failed to come up with anything workable since the Referendum. On the contrary, what has been exposed is that a government that has adopted their hard Brexit position has been unable to craft it into something deliverable. That’s the real significance of Baker’s apology: when in government posts the Ultras are forced to take responsibility in a way that they are free from outside of government.

It’s for this reason that the Ultras hold off deposing May, which they surely have the numbers to do, as Rafael Behr argues in a superb essay in Prospect this week. They don’t want to take responsibility for delivering something which has already been shown to be undeliverable, and prefer to complain of betrayal. Victimhood, as I have argued several times on this blog, is their comfort zone. That can, as we have seen in abundance over Brexit, make for effective politics; it doesn’t make for effective policy. The moment for the Ultras to strike, if they were going to, passed with the phase 1 deal. If they strike now they are as likely to see Brexit slip through their fingers as get anything close to what they want than they will get from May’s government. Hence Liam Fox this week telling the Ultras they must learn to live with disappointment.

Yet if the Ultras are not able to bring down May, she is also not able to stand up to them. So she continues to grind out her mantras of ‘deep and special partnership’, the ‘Brexit the British people want’ and refusing to commit one way or another on the current question about a UK-EU customs treaty. Maybe she doesn’t want to stand up to them, and believes this tosh she comes out with – but if so, what’s clear is that at every stage she ends up conceding on things the Ultras hold dear. They know that she’s done it, they know that she will continue to do it, but there’s nothing they can do to stop her. But she can’t tell them that that is what she will continue to do, and maybe doesn’t even realise that this is what she will continue to do.

And so, for the time being anyway – for it surely can’t continue forever – Brexit Britain limps along with a terrified, mauled zoo keeper chained to a snarling, feral beast; each reliant on the other, but each loathing the other. At one moment the keeper lashes the beast spitefully with her whip; the next moment the beast lacerates the keeper savagely with its claws. Each time, a little blood is drawn but they remain manacled together because they have manacled themselves to each other. Meanwhile the rest of us, and the rest of the world, look on in horror, dismay and disgust at this revolting spectacle.🔷



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(This piece was first published on The Brexit Blog.)


(Cover: Dreamstime/Icefront.)


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Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.

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