Jacob Rees-Mogg's Moment of Maximum Decision

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Two forces are colliding as the U.K. parliament struggles to decide the direction of Brexit: the government, which wants to salvage the divorce deal it has negotiated, and those who want to avert a no-deal exit and find another way forward. It’s now time for a third force to make some decisions.

The government is trying to revive Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal, which it argues correctly is the only sure route to an orderly departure. May’s chief Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, has reportedly sent her a list of possible amendments in an effort to resuscitate her plan after its defeat in Parliament.

Against that are lawmakers from both major parties aiming to prevent a no-deal Brexit happening by default on March 29. An amendment bearing the name of Labour’s Yvette Cooper would require the government to ask the European Union to extend the deadline if a deal cannot be reached before the end of February. The motion, which would be binding on the government, has a good chance of passing.

Those pushing to prevent a no-deal exit disagree, however, on the endpoint: Cooper’s backers want a close relationship with the EU similar to the one Norway enjoys, while supporters of Conservative Dominic Grieve, who has submitted a separate amendment, advocate a second referendum. Either way, the chances of the U.K. leaving without a deal may all but disappear next week.

That creates a moment of maximum decision for leading Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg: Is he in a negotiation or leading a revolution? Rees-Mogg understands that the entire Brexit project is now at risk of being delayed, reversed or watered down. He also can see his party being torn apart.

Do he and his supporters in the European Research Group insist there is only one, pure Brexit — and risk it slipping away? The choice is also one between loyalty to party and loyalty to a life-long cause.

A revolutionary movement — as Ivan Rogers, formerly Britain’s top civil servant in Brussels, has argued the Brexiter movement is — doesn’t care what it has to blow up on the way to achieving radical change. It doesn’t compromise.

But Rees-Mogg is sending conflicting signals. He struck a more conciliatory tone this week, saying May’s deal is preferable to no Brexit. He noted “outbreaks of realism,” presumably referring to discussions about how the hated backstop might be changed. But he has also called on the government to suspend (or prorogue) Parliament if MPs seek to shut down the no-deal option. Others have suggested the government should, in those circumstances, ask the Queen to withhold Royal Assent for legislation that blocks no-deal.

The first would likely destroy what faith remains in Parliament and the second would upend centuries of constitutional convention. If the point of Brexit is to restore parliamentary sovereignty, thwarting the will of Parliament would be a strange fight to pick.

Brexiters haven’t given up the argument that the EU will somehow be distraught enough to come to the rescue, a position that is starting to look embarrassing. The EU has so far refused to consider any fundamental change to the backstop, which keeps Britain locked inside the customs union in the event a hard border with Ireland can’t be avoided.

The threat to leave without a deal was totemic for the hard-Brexit wing of the Conservative Party. While May adopted the posture, it always lacked a certain credibility. The EU understood it would be an act of monumental economic self-harm. And if the U.K. was so willing to carry out the promise, why was it negotiating so fervently for a transition period to maintain the economic status quo?

Brexiters are also clinging to the idea that a move to World Trade Organization rules, and then a great free-trade deal down the road, is workable. In a lecture at University College London on Tuesday, Rogers gave (and I highly recommend) a devastating critique of an argument “that would make snake oil salesmen blush.”

Other pretenses for Brexiteer absolutism are similarly strained. They repeatedly claim that the root problem is that a remain-voting Parliament is unwilling to do the bidding of a leave-voting public. And yet, thanks to a clever poll conducted by Number Cruncher Politics, we have a pretty good sense that mischaracterizes what voters want. If asked their preferences — remain, leave, no deal — the results are predictably polarized. But when asked what they can live with, respondents found May’s deal the least bad outcome.

None of this is to dispute the core Brexiter critique of the EU — that its federalizing impulses aren’t what the U.K. wants or needs. That was, and is, an honorable position. But it always comes back to the same question: What then?

It is one the euroskeptic movement failed for years to answer and avoided entirely during the 2016 campaign. The Institute of Economic Affairs even ran a competition in 2013 to find the best approach to leaving Europe; the range of options was as wide as today’s debate reflects. Perhaps they are happy simply to stand up for sovereignty in perpetuity without any need to make the messy choices that those who govern must; there is a certain romanticism in that, even if it lacks realism.

The March 29 deadline may well be delayed — even, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s trusted ally Peter Altmaier has suggested, just to give Parliament more time to reflect. If that happens, the choice will be much as it is now — between the inevitable compromises that an orderly Brexit requires and letting voters, in their wisdom, decide. Hardliners like Rees-Mogg will finally have to reveal not what they want, but what they can live with. The change from revolutionary to realist, however, can feel like a horrible let-down.

If Rees-Mogg’s side do somehow fall in behind the Prime Minister, it may even be too late. The Brexit revolutionaries may now just be outnumbered by Cooper and Grieve’s ranks of counter-revolutionaries; they, too, have had a taste of what it’s like to lead a rebellion. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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