Jacob Rees-Mogg has been ambushed with his own words and forced out of the second referendum closet, says ANDREW ADONIS.
This is the week that Mogg was Mogged and the path to a referendum on Theresa May’s Brexit deal became clear. Earlier this month the de facto Prime Minister, Nigel Farage, came out for such a referendum. ‘The ego has landed,’ someone quipped. He backtracked to blaming me and the other ‘remoaners’ who ‘simply won’t let go until there is another referendum,’ but the damage had been done. I took it as a compliment to the power of resistance and persistence from master himself.
Now, the de facto leader of the Conservative Party, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has been forced from the second referendum closet. The closet is Hansard, the hundreds of volumes of ‘great unread’ verbatim records of parliamentary debates stretching back to Pitt and Fox. Preparing for a BBC Sunday Politics confrontation with the Mogg, prior to the EU Withdrawal Bill starting its tortuous course through the House of Lords next week, I chanced to read the Commons debate on the Mogg’s ultimately successful campaign in 2011 to force David Cameron into a Brexit referendum.
Back then the Mogg was having difficulty persuading even his own side that this would be democratic when people would have no idea what they were actually voting for. He responded that a first referendum would be on the principle of a complete ‘renegotiation’ of Britain’s membership of the EU. He continued: ‘You can have two referendums. And as it happens it might make more sense to have a second referendum after the renegotiation.’
Precisely. It is like moving house. You put in an offer. But then you have the survey done. As we all know, lots of offers are then withdrawn when the subsidence and the shaky foundations are discovered. Not to mention the state of the roof, the noise and the neighbours.
Ambushed with his own words, the Mogg blathered. He had wanted to brand me and my fellow remoaner Lords as ‘the peers against the people’ and couldn’t adjust to the idea that we peers might actually be not-so-secret agents of the people. ‘Everyone knew what they were voting for,’ he blurted. But no-one could possibly have known what they were voting for in June 2016. There was nothing to vote for beyond giving ministers a mandate to negotiate a withdrawal agreement.
The battles ahead are now clear. First is the campaign to enlist Keir Starmer, and then Jeremy Corbyn, behind a referendum.
The political logic compelling Labour support for a referendum is overwhelming. No way can Labour, least of all Jeremy, vote for the ‘Tory exit terms’ in the autumn.
In an echo of Harold Wilson in the early 1970s – ‘yes to Europe but not on the Tory terms’ – Jeremy will at the very least need a position from which to equivocate on the principle of Brexit itself while opposing the Tory terms and allowing his hugely pro-Labour party membership and MPs to take to the barricades against Brexit.
I think there is a good chance that Jeremy will choose to lead the resistance himself. His young army will be bitterly disillusioned if their general doesn’t appear. Reports from the Leader of the Opposition’s encampment are of an uncertain chief bombarded with conflicting advice but leaning towards engaging the enemy and not handing the battle and potentially the glory to Colonel Umunna.
Either way, provided Labour votes for a referendum, the swing vote will be the former Attorney General Dominic Grieve and his band of Tory rebels who humiliated the nominal Prime Minister, Theresa May, with their ‘meaningful vote’ amendment to the Withdrawal Bill shortly before Christmas.
Grieve faces an acute dilemma when May tables her Withdrawal Agreement. His own ‘meaningful vote’ procedure gives him the power to vote it down, but to do so would also topple May, necessitate an immediate election, and in all likelihood put Jeremy Corbyn straight into No 10. It would also be democratically problematic to argue that rejecting the Withdrawal Agreement should lead to continued EU membership, rather than crashing out with no deal, given the June 23, 2016, vote.
Anyway, all this would be several betrayals too many for the dozen or so Tory MPs needed to wield these multiple daggers. It would be a scene akin to Murder on the Orient Express, which even Agatha Christie considered Hercule Poirot’s most implausible case.
Far more plausible is that Grieve’s battalion congregates behind the only ‘meaningful vote’ which can reverse the June 2016 vote without requiring a general election: a vote of the people, in which May would allow dissenting opinions within the government and the Conservative Party. This would also avoid the resignations which I am told will follow if all hundred-plus ministers are required to vote for withdrawal terms which some will find unacceptable.
So, provided Labour is supporting a referendum by October, I can now see a path to Rees-Mogg’s 2011 rationale. Not a second referendum on the principle of withdrawal, sight unseen, but a first referendum on withdrawal ‘with the survey’.
I don’t intend to spend a moment longer in the gilded cage of the House of Lords than necessary to debate the Withdrawal Bill. The action is moving once again to the country, which is where I intend to be as much as possible in the coming months.
I am planning a tour of the hundred districts with the largest Leave votes in June 2016 – to listen and learn; to energise the ‘Remain’ forces, particularly students and the young; and to put the case for a referendum on the Brexit deal.
Like my national tour as Transport Secretary in 2009, it will be courtesy of a standard class rail rover ticket, hoping the privatised railway doesn’t leave me stranded too often.
Chris Grayling, the beleaguered Transport Secretary, won’t be too distressed if that happens. But then, his own record as a bitter Brexiteer who has turned his every ministerial portfolio to ashes, will be my favourite travel story.