Before our very eyes, the infrastructure of British hardline Euroscepticism, or Europhobia, is crumbling. We can all see the painful slide of Ukip into a front organisation for Tommy Robinson, and the rot has spread to mainstream Tory party Euroscepticism – the European Research Group, or ERG.
Theresa May’s victory in the vote of confidence does nothing other than draw attention to the weakness of the ERG, the club for fruitcakes, headbangers and eccentrics that has, basically, tried to hijack the Tories, the government and the country. They’ve had a good run, bluffing their way through life, although their war with May goes on. Having run away from the meaningful vote this week, which would have been a potentially career-ending event, she lived to fight and win another day. It arrived quickly. Her critics chose the wrong grounds at the wrong time. She beat them.
The prime minister has a mandate, of sorts, and she is now safe for a year, and perhaps much longer – she has said she will not lead the Tories into the next election, but that still leaves her plenty of time. The ERG, and Boris Johnson, cannot now get into the driving seat. Rather than being able to make grand threats on the basis no one has ever known how much support the group really has, it has exposed itself to the ultimate test – a vote. It did a bit better than expected and it bodes ill for the “meaningful vote” on her deal, but she knows the group’s strength may have been overstated.
Predictable in its actions and in the obvious limits of its appeal inside parliament, the struggle is still difficult for the ERG. The Tory grassroots might have put a Brexit true believer into No 10; but there was never a chance that the MPs would have allowed it to happen.
Further, the ERG merely proved to the prime minister that her best chance of getting her deal through the Commons lies with the variety of loyalists, pro-Europeans, Remainers and soft Brexiteers scattered around her own party and across the opposition parties. They – in theory – could be persuaded. The ERG (or most of them) cannot. Why bother with them?
The ERG is in fact, astonishingly maladroit. Despite the vote, if anything the group has increased the chances of the PM getting her deal though the Commons now. She can claim, up to a point, that the personal mandate she received reflects support in the party for her negotiating strategy. No one can prove she is wrong. Some Eurosceptics might actually now throw the towel in. The younger ones with an eye to a ministerial career should definitely do so. Boris Johnson, Steve Baker, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel – all busted flushes. They made a rather foolish gamble, and they lost.
Remember the big talk of a coup against the prime minister a few weeks ago? ERG grand poobah Jacob Rees-Mogg and his acolytes spun a line that the 48 letters were within reach. They weren’t. The invitation to ridicule them was duly accepted by the media, and even by their friends in the press. When Rees-Mogg declared he had always rather admired Captain Mainwaring, out of Dad’s Army, it was a sublime moment of comedy.
They have never, in fact, been remotely coherent. Like all ideological extremists, they splinter and argue among themselves. There is too much detail for them to fuss over. Boris and David Davis would like a Canada-plus deal, and not a crash-out, World Trade Organisation-terms Brexit, which they fear. John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith believe WTO terms hold no fears, and open up great opportunities. Some back Raab, others David Davis, others Johnson, others even Esther McVey and Priti Patel. Despite their pamphlets and speeches, there is no plan – or at least no plan the EU would accept as a basis for negotiation. They found themselves embarrassed by their association with Nigel Farage and Arron Banks’s bragging and arrogance.
The best the Eurosceptics can now do is to foment discontent and nurse their grievances. A “stab in the back” conspiracy theory is already emerging, something to cling to as soft Brexit or a people’s vote overwhelms them. Very well, but they had plenty of chances to seize the initiative, and they failed every time. Now we know why – they haven’t the support, the numbers or, in truth, the best of the argument. It didn’t matter who was doing this deal – the EU was always going to dictate the terms, both because it is far bigger than us and because of our “red lines”. Someday, someone will write a book entitled “The Strange Death of Brexit and Eurosceptic England”. It needs to be done.
It has in reality been mostly downhill for the ERG and the Brexiteers since Johnson and Michael Gove almost seized the leadership of the party and government straight after the 2016 EU referendum. Instead, and entirely characteristically, they – Gove, Johnson, Andrea Leadsom – fell into a clownish heap, blood on the walls, daggers plunged into one another’s backs, and they left the field open for the only serious candidate who looked like they could remotely get the job done, Theresa May. As she might say, nothing has changed.
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