(Bloomberg) -- What can explain the sudden reasonableness afflicting Britain’s Euroskeptics?
After months of threatening to boot Prime Minister Theresa May out of office every time it looked like she might concede a single inch in negotiations with the European Union, pro-Brexit members of her Conservative Party have become very understanding -- just as she’s given up a whole lot of ground.
While it’s true that Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the most vociferous of the anti-EU Tory lawmakers, has described the transition agreement she signed off on this week as “very unsatisfactory,” he also went on to say that he could live with it so long as he eventually got a “proper Brexit.”
In other words, he says he’s focusing more on the final destination than the route. That’s a far cry from his warnings only a few weeks ago that Britain was at risk of becoming a “vassal state” of the EU.
But another explanation could be that Euroskeptic Tories, many of whom are members of Rees-Mogg’s so-called European Research Group, have realized they don’t have the decisive strength in numbers they thought they did.
Last month, 62 Conservative lawmakers signed a letter organized by the ERG urging May to -- in effect -- deliver a hard Brexit. Though their wording was obscure, the signal was clear: It only takes 48 signatures to trigger a vote of confidence in the prime minister, and their group has significantly more.
Looked at like that, 62 is a very big number indeed.
That calculation, though, appears to have changed now that opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has decided to support remaining in a customs union with the EU. It would now take very few Tories to break ranks to give Labour and other smaller parties a majority for that position in Parliament. Though many in May’s party are reluctant to do that, enough have gone on record to suggest she would face defeat on the customs union issue.
While such a vote -- one is likely on an amendment to the Trade Bill -- wouldn’t be binding on the government, it would be hard to ignore. What would happen after is impossible to predict, though one option would be for May to accept the will of Parliament and go for a customs union.
Much would then depend on how the ERG responded. It could try to throw May overboard, but it’s possible it would fall at the first hurdle. Conservative rules specify that before choosing a replacement, there must first be a confidence vote. In theory, this would be straightforward, because the prime minister has been living on borrowed time with her party since last year’s disastrous election.
But faced with a choice between a customs union under May or a harder Brexit under someone else, the bulk of the 312 Tory lawmakers might back the incumbent.
The danger for Rees-Mogg and the ERG is that having spent 18 months arguing that 62 is a big number, it may not actually be big enough.
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