Surprisingly though it may be to some of my readers I have never been that bothered about Brexit. I even voted Remain – not on the strength of the economic arguments, which I thought fairly evenly balanced – but because I could see the danger in precipitating the break-up of the European Union: that it might lead to the drift back eastwards of former Soviet bloc countries. But once the decision was made I was very happy that it be executed, so long as it be in an economically liberal way and done properly; not leaving us stuck in some halfway house where we are bound to EU rules, bound to its trade policy, paying into its coffers and yet without a hand on the tiller.
That is the very prospect we face now as the attrition between the government, the Lords and Conservative Remainers in the Commons threatens to suck us into some gloopy fudge, a worst-of-all-worlds in which we will be following EU rules, paying EU dues but having no say and no influence in what those rules will be. I wouldn’t mind if Brexit were abandoned; I wouldn’t mind if we left without a deal – though that latter option would be disrupting in the short term it may well turn out to be the best option in the long term. That is clear from how the EU’s leaders view the prospect: the fears of a European Singapore moored 20 miles off Calais is what drives them most. But please, do not take us out of the EU while tying us into the customs union. That the matter of the Irish border has been allowed to drive us in this direction is utterly absurd. It is a small detail. The argument that having customs checks – unnecessary if, as would be ideal, we end up with a free trade arrangement with the EU – will undermine the peace process is bizarre. At the worst, we will have a few customs posts, probably, as between Switzerland and its EU neighbours, for lorries only. No-one is going to be rebuilding gun emplacements.
Increasingly, there is one voice in Parliament who seems able to express the above without pulling his words. It won’t please Alex Massie, who wrote yesterday on his contempt for the man, but it is Jacob Rees-Mogg. Yes, he of the – alleged — double-breasted pyjamas, who turned up at the GEC AGM aged 10 and demanded higher dividends. He who named his sixth child Sixtus. That Rees-Mogg’s opponents so quickly resort to trying to establish him as a national joke is a symptom of their having no counter-argument to his very lucid warning, over many months, of the situation the government now finds itself in: in danger of signing up for what Rees-Mogg memorably called a ‘Vassal state’ of the EU.
Brexit, contends Massie, citing Rees-Mogg’s choice to quote Harold Macmillan in his piece in the Times this week, is about harking back to some imagined British past – it is a vague emotional response to the terror of change. I am sure there are Brexiteers who want out of the EU because they fondly remember inches and feet, pounds, shilling and pence. Yet anyone who attempts to portray Rees-Mogg as some kind of pub-bore Ukipper misses the mark. It isn’t emotion that leads he, or anyone else, to conclude that the prospect of Britain remaining in a customs union with the EU, collecting its taxes for it while having no freedom to cut our own trade deals, is a dangerous one. It is just cold logic, of the sort Rees-Mogg demonstrated on the Today Programme yesterday.
True, Rees-Mogg’s fogeyish appearance makes for obvious cartoon possibilities – and his privileged upbringing allows mockery by people who would not dare poke fun at the physical characteristics, voice and clothes of someone from poor or ethnic origins. But the piss-taking is ultimately not going to distract from the logic of the argument. The ‘vassal state’ warning will come will be come to be remembered as the wise counsel it is.