This week was supposed to be the week that the European Research Group of backbench Brexiteers finally revealed their hand and published a Brexit plan to rival Theresa May’s. With the Prime Minister currently without the numbers to get her Chequers proposal through Parliament (even if there were no further concessions), there were concerns from May supporters that a viable alternative Brexit plan could be the final nail in the coffin.
Only that rival plan hasn’t come to fruition after so-called creative differences among the Brexiteers over the mooted 140-page draft proposals. Matters weren’t helped when ‘mad’ plans to build a ‘Star Wars’-style missile shield to protect Britain from nuclear attack and an ‘expeditionary force’ to defend the Falklands emerged in the weekend papers.
Despite this, the Brexiteers have found a few things to unite around. Firstly, the merits of a no-deal Brexit. Jacob Rees-Mogg was joined by Boris Johnson and Steve Baker at an event in Parliament to mark the launch of a new report from the pro-Brexit ‘Economists for Free Trade’ group. Rebranding ‘no deal’ as ‘World Trade Deal’, the report argues that there is ‘nothing to fear’ about leaving the EU with no deal and says that such a move could result in an £80bn boost to the tax base. Today they hope to add to this with an event unveiling their solution to the Irish border.
There does seem to be a general consensus amongst the Brexit bunch that while a Canada plus-style free-trade deal with Brussels is most desirable, a ‘World Trade deal’ is a viable alternative if push comes to shove. However, despite their best efforts today, the Brexiteers still look a rather disorganised bunch. The fact that senior Leave MPs had trumpeted this week as one where they would announce specifics only to then row back means that the main takeaway is that this is a group more comfortable offering criticism than providing solutions.
When it comes to criticism, they were more than forthcoming at last night’s weekly European Research Group meeting. Attendees report open discussions of when and how to oust Theresa May. There was talk of sending 20 letters to Graham Brady – head of the 1922 committee – all at once so that the Brexiteers could control when the ‘no confidence’ vote would be. It’s no secret that these MPs want her gone – it’s the subject that dominated their WhatsApp group over the summer. The trouble is, even if they control the timing it’s hard to see how they would currently get enough votes from across the parliamentary party so that May lost the confidence vote. A large chunk of the party still thinks that May must stay until the Brexit negotiations end.
If they failed and May won the confidence vote, she would be guaranteed another year unchallenged (though the voting down of her Brexit deal could still prove fatal). Some of May’s allies actively want a confidence vote sooner rather than later while they think she will win it. It follows that for all their talk, there’s reason to suspect that the Brexiteers won’t be making their move just yet.