JACOB Rees-Mogg is immensely popular. No, I can’t explain it either, but he’s sitting on an unassailable 10,000-vote majority, remains well-liked by Conservative activists, and has successfully cultivated an idiosyncratic image and a robust social media following. Indeed, for all the talk of a new centrist party, polling suggests that a hard-right, conservative, take-Britain-back-to-how-it-used-to-be party offering the kind of platform for which Rees-Mogg advocates would be a far more successful electoral bet.
It’s a mystery, then – particularly with the retreat of UKIP into far-right street thuggery – that there has been no serious effort by any political group to occupy that space.
Unless, of course, there is.
Last week, Theresa May survived a confidence vote from Conservative MPs. It was initiated by the right-wing European Research Group, a Rees-Mogg-led think-tank that advocates for a hard, no deal Brexit (known this week by the name of ‘managed no deal’). This plot to remove Theresa May and replace her with one of their own has been long in the making, but the vote was curiously timed.
Within hours, more than enough MPs had come out in support of the prime minister, leaving the ERG’s coup attempt dead on arrival. Rees-Mogg and his cronies surely knew this from the start, so what could they possibly have gained from a vote they were almost guaranteed to lose?
For a start, the no-confidence vote was actually impeccably timed. Because Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement was still fresh in the public consciousness, the vote would implicitly be in opposition to her botched Brexit. It could therefore serve as a way to illustrate to the public, to the Conservative Party and to potential donors the strength of opposition to Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. With 117 MPs opposed to Theresa May, this was a formidable rebellion despite its failure.
The divisions within the Conesrvative Party were laid bare. One MP reportedly told the FT’s Jim Pickard ‘I’m bloody angry, I think I’ve got more in common with people like Hilary Benn and Liz Kendall than the Brexit lot, I’m sorry I’m in the same party as them’, while Heidi Allen said she would leave the party should Jacob Rees-Mogg become leader. On TV, the hard-right Andrew Bridgen walked out of an interview when party chairman James Cleverly came on set. The Conservative Party has ceased to function as a coherent unit not because of Brexit alone, but it has opened up deep ideological wounds.
The European Research Group wanted to open up these divisions – but why is it in their interest to split their own party? The answer is simple: the no-confidence vote was a carefully calculated first step in a plot to start a new, hard-right breakaway party. In launching the vote, they have highlighted the breadth of opposition to Theresa May and her withdrawal agreement, cast her as the enemy of the ‘true Brexit’, and quietly gauged the amount of support they could gain for their new party.
Many of the ERG’s members sit on huge majorities in pro-Brexit, Conservative heartland seats. With the backing of big-money Eurosceptic donors, as many as 117 supporters in parliament and a populist, right-wing platform (hard Brexit, pro-death penalty, anti-immigration, protect the green belt are all enormously popular policies), they would become a formidable political force.
And they have the perfect ally waiting in the wings to join them, someone with a heady blend of right-wing populism and an everyman persona: Nigel Farage.
The timing of Farage’s decision to quit UKIP just days before the confidence vote is, in retrospect, suspicious.
The timing of Farage’s decision to quit UKIP just days before the confidence vote is, in retrospect, suspicious. He’s never had much of a problem with Islamophobia before – this is the man behind the infamous ‘breaking point’ poster, after all– but apparently Tommy Robinson’s appointment as an adviser to Gerard Batten was a step too far. In reality, Farage had been disassociating himself from UKIP for months; Robinson’s involvement was just a convenient excuse – one that also places him on the moral high ground ahead of launching a new, ‘mainstream’conservative party.
It makes perfect sense for the ERG to link up with Farage: not only do they have far more in common with him, but he remains a vote winner, and has a reputation as the man who delivered Brexit. Furthermore, the kind of people who wouldn’t vote for Farage are already the kind of people who wouldn’t vote for an ERG party. It does nothing to weaken their appeal.
The bleak aftermath of Brexit will create an enormous space for cynical opportunists to shape Britain’s future. The ERG, Farage, big-money donors, a ready-made villain in Theresa May, a narrative of betrayal and a promise of populist policies and a ‘true’ Brexit. Stick Jacob Rees-Mogg in the driving seat and you have a potent combination, a sure vote winner and the seeds of a party that would grow to influence British politics in a right-wing, authoritarian, nationalist direction far more than UKIP ever could.
It could succeed because, unlike UKIP, it wouldn’t be a single-issue party. Rees-Mogg’s gang could easily occupy that intersection of hard Euroscepticism and right-wing social beliefs for which he’s already the standard bearer.
For instance, 13% of British voters oppose gay marriage. Imagine those 13% flocking to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new party at the promise of family values and a return to traditional norms. What about the 54% of Conservative voters who support the death penalty, or the 44% of Brits who think immigration has had a negative effect on Britain, or perhaps the 31% who think the country is worse than it was fifty years ago?
These are people who voted for Brexit because they want things to be like they used to be – regardless of what that really means outside their imagination. To them, Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement is a betrayal – that’s the narrative being spun by Jacob Rees-Mogg and his allies – because it doesn’t give them that ‘clean slate’ to undo the damage they believe the EU to have done; they may also feel alienated by the socially-liberal stances adopted by the Tories under David Cameron. It’s a ready-made electorate.
This may only be fantasy – after all, the Tories have prioritised party unity ever since the Peelites – but at the moment the party’s internal divisions and the greed of the ERG make it more likely than ever. A barrier is first-past-the-post, but there’s a precedent for exactly this situation in Canada, where Preston Manning’s right-wing populist Reform Party was founded in 1987, and leapfrogged the moderate Progressive Conservative Party as Official Opposition ten years later on a socially conservative, economic libertarian platform.
The received wisdom is that the Conservative Party won’t sacrifice its own unity if doing so would invite Jeremy Corbyn to form a government. But Corbyn has indicated his Brexit would be harder than Theresa May’s, and his antipathy towards the EU is of a greater vintage than the prime minister’s. For these hard Brexit zealots, a Faustian bargain with the Labour leader isn’t out of the question if it gives them a better chance of shaping their right-wing fantasy version of Britain than Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.
Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement will be put to a vote on 14 January. The extent of Conservative opposition to the deal will define the extent of the realignment within British politics. But to understand what might happen we need to shed our preconceptions and orthodoxies; all we know is that Brexit will change everything.