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JAMES BALL: Rees-Mogg’s hard Brexit mob is holding the country hostage

Jacob Rees-Mogg. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

In another Deconstructed, James Ball looks at how the European Research Group is exploiting the dark arts of the US.

It has become common to hear warnings that US-style politics – where a far-right fringe has captured the country and so come to dominate public life – is coming to the UK. Some say such talk is overblown, while others feel is all too real.

In reality, such warnings are already too late. When it comes to the House of Commons, at least, one of the most dangerous innovations of US politics has already taken told, and it is holding all of our futures to ransom.

The US has a caucus (their term for a grouping) in its House of Representatives (its equivalent of the Commons) known as the Freedom Caucus. It might be more familiarly known to those of us in the UK as the ‘tea party’ or the ‘deplorable’ wing of the Republicans. It is hugely conservative, totally in favour of obliterating the USA’s already woeful healthcare, and fervent in its pursuit of huge cuts to both taxes and to public spending.

But it is not so much the agenda as the tactics which have made their way across the Atlantic. The Freedom Caucus is characterised by its relentless willingness to hold the US people hostage to try to force the political agenda in their direction. Any time America needs to pass a budget, raise the debt ceiling, protect hundreds of thousands of people brought to the USA as young children (known as the DREAMers) from deportation, or some other matter of national urgency, the Freedom Caucus refuses to back the deal without huge concessions to its own agenda.

The result is that despite holding majorities in both the House and the Senate, the Republican party often needs to turn to Democrats to vote with it to prevent national disaster. Democrats have ended up voting with Republicans to build Trump’s wall, in the hope of securing an amnesty for the DREAMers. They have voted through huge spending cuts to prevent government shutdowns. They have made compromise after compromise, concession after concession, to keep the lights on in government and prevent the US government defaulting on its debt.

Not only has this served to shift the political norms to the right – with the Freedom Caucus decrying each compromise deal, despite it having shifted politics in their direction – but it has led to a divided and dispirited Democrat party. Time and again voters look to Congress and see Democrats voting on terrible deals with huge concessions to Republicans. Some might understand that the party is simply trying to be the adults in the room, to save the country from the fringe of a party willing to blow it up – but many more just see their supposed representatives acting against their interest.

The Freedom Caucus rarely try to produce their own compromise deals, or to generate their own viable legislation. Instead, they produce fantasy plans they know they won’t pass, and blow up everyone’s else’s legislation – then wait for a crucial vote which has to pass before striking. The approach is nothing short of legislative terrorism. Throughout, these efforts are boosted by fringe figures on the alt-right, and new far-right online outlets like Breitbart.

Anyone paying attention to the group of around 60 Conservative MPs known as the European Research Group, or ERG, will recognise how closely the ERG’s tactics mirror their Freedom Caucus counterparts.

Multiple hard Brexit-backing MPs have quit the government, shredding Theresa May’s plans while offering no concrete alternative of their own. The ERG has tabled and passed amendments effectively killing the PM’s Brexit plan while offering little to replace it. The operation is effectively whipped (by former minister Steve Baker), is plugged in to much of the pro-Brexit media, and clearly scares Number 10 far more than the Tories’ contingent of Remainers, who time and again have backed away from voting against the government.

It is not hard to look to the US to see where this road will lead. Just as the Freedom Caucus exploited the catastrophic effects of the US defaulting on government debt, or the headaches of a government shutdown, to hold America to ransom, so too will the ERG use our fear of a catastrophic no-deal Brexit against us.

Remain-backing Conservative and Labour MPs are going to be called on to support whatever deal – assuming Theresa May manages to reach one (an increasingly unlikely bet) – that the prime minister manages to obtain, even if it is a damaging and much harder Brexit than any of them would like.

With each day that passes more pressure will be put on Labour to save the Conservatives – and the country – from themselves, tying themselves to a terrible deal and leaving them open to cries of betrayal from all sides: Brexiteers who will then blame the ‘Remain-backed deal’ for the consequences of Brexit, and from the hard-left who will see it as a sellout from ‘centrist’ Labour MPs to save Theresa May.

The last hope of the Brexit being pursued by Theresa May’s Conservative government is using the ERG’s willingness to hold the country to ransom to force Labour MPs to fold and back her, just as Democrats repeatedly backed Republican deals on key votes.

That’s been the story in the US since 2010, and we have seen where such concessions lead: the Democrats, rather than being credited for saving the nation at the cost of their own policies, have been punished at the polls and by their opponents.

The Republicans have kept both houses of Congress since 2010, and when the moment came for Republicans to repay Democrats for their endless bailouts – and let Obama appoint a Supreme Court Justice, as mandated by the Constitution – the Republicans blocked them once more. Time and again, Democrats are forced to play patsy to Trump and his Republican allies.

The Conservative Brexiteer Right is getting ready to hold the UK’s future hostage. Labour and Remain should not give in to them.

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