Jacob Rees-Mogg is a British politician who has served as the member of Parliament for North East Somerset since 2010. In January 2018, Rees-Mogg became the chairman of the European Research Group — a coalition of Euroskeptic Conservative MPs — and has emerged as one of the most vocal proponents of a clean Brexit. Here he talks to Madeleine Kearns.
Madeleine Kearns: I thought we could zoom out a bit for the benefit of our American readers. I wanted to ask you first of all — as it seems sort of strange from the U.S. — why did the Tories not oust May when they had the chance with the recent confidence vote?
Jacob Rees-Mogg: Well, the members of the government, which is about half the parliamentary party, and its ministers — parliamentary private secretaries, trade envoys etc., — really ought to support the prime minister or resign. And it’s always a much higher bar to get members of the government to vote against the prime minister than backbenchers.
MK: You were in opposition to the prime minister at the time of the confidence vote, and called on her to resign soon after. Are you saying you’re fully reconciled with her now?
JRM: Yes, I mean I lost the vote. And in the end if you lose the vote you’ve got to accept that. And you can’t sit on the sidelines for months, if not years, saying I’m not going to accept this. That’d be a pointless and fruitless thing to do. And it’s very interesting if you look at the Labour party — the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, but once he stayed, they recognized that he’s the leader and they had to back him. And that’s the position that I’m in.
MK: Is the unity of the Tory party more important to you than the future of Brexit?
JRM: I think the two things go together because I think if the Tory party divided and you got Jeremy Corbyn in as prime minister, you would have a disastrous economic result which would then be blamed on Brexit. So the motivation to unite the Tory party and to deliver Brexit to my mind go hand in hand.
MK: So, if the choice was between a so-called hard Brexit and Tory-party split, or a so-called soft Brexit or Remain and Tory-party unity, which would you chose?
JRM: Well, I think the only way that the Tory party can win an election is by delivering Brexit properly, because that’s what people voted for. If you look at opinion polls, 70 percent of conservative voters backed Leave. So if you start saying, “Well we should have a soft Brexit,” then you do something that fundamentally threatens the prospects of the Conservative party. So the overall thing that the Tories need to do is to deliver Brexit thoroughly and then unite.
MK: What is a “proper Brexit” in your view? Because we get very confused over in the states with all the talk of hard Brexits, soft Brexits, medium-boiled Brexits . . .
JRM: [Laughs] You’re very modest to say only in the United States. I think everybody is confused about these various terms for Brexit. I think the government’s deal with the “backstop” is not really Brexit — because you’d potentially be remaining in the customs union, which is one of the major parts of the European Union, indeed the founding part of the European Union, and bring large chunks of the single market as well, so that’s not a clean Brexit.
And the implementation period to a free-trade deal [with the EU] would be a clean Brexit, and that’s the outcome that many people like me have called for. As would going straight to WTO terms [also known as “no deal”]; that is, after all, how we trade with the United States.
MK: Is no-deal the most likely outcome at this point?
JRM: Well it’s what is currently the law. So not to have it would require the law to be changed. And that is not easy. Elements of it would be extremely difficult. Some elements of it are not impossible but would have great political consequences. So the prime minister could apply for an extension of Article 50 [the Treaty of Lisbon provision allowing EU states to leave with two years to negotiate an exit deal] and probably get the statutory instrument through Parliament that would be necessary to make that work in British domestic law. But the political consequences of that outside Parliament would be very significant.
MK: What would it take for you to be able to support the deal on the table?
JRM: Most of my concerns would be removed if the backstop were removed. So just pull the backstop out of the withdrawal agreement: Then you’re still paying £39 billion for nothing [per the “divorce bill” May has agreed to], but that’s a very different argument than basically staying within the European Union until they let you leave. Indeed, the backstop has you more tightly tied into elements of the European Union than we are currently, as under Article 50 we can give two years then go.
MK: Is it realistic that the backstop issue can be resolved if the EU is being so stubborn about it?
JRM: In a negotiation everything’s realistic if you ask for it. And the EU will realize that the alternative is that there is no agreement. Which I don’t think the EU believes at the moment. I think the EU thinks that we might come to the conclusion that this is all a terrible mistake, like Bobbie Ewing waking up from his dream in the shower all those years ago, and that we’ll come to our senses and want to stay. And I think that is magical thinking, to coin a term.
MK: Do you think Parliament is going to try and find a way to block the deal?
JRM: Well Parliament has legislated for us to leave — so that’s already in law. And so, Parliament would have to overturn legislation that has already been passed and as you know that is not an easy thing to do.
MK: What if they were to ask the EU to extend Article 50?
JRM: Well, the prime minister said she won’t do that . . .
MK: The prime minister has said she wouldn’t do other things that she’s subsequently done.
JRM: You are absolutely right; I was aware of that as I said it. But I think that’s a very, very difficult thing to do. I think that people expect the government to deliver on the Brexit that it’s promised. And technically it’s difficult because of European parliamentary elections, and the EU’s position seems to be that Article 50 could be extended if there was some obvious reason to, but it can’t be extended just because the government can’t make up its mind.
MK: Do you think the EU would give permission for it to be extended if, say, it was likely to lead to a softer Brexit or indeed a Remain outcome?
JRM: Yes, I think if they thought it could lead to Remain, they would offer an extension. Yes, of course, because the EU want us to say because they want our money and they like ruling us, [coughs] a colony. But I think that’s very difficult to get the British people to accept.
If you look at opinion polls, consistently, since the referendum 60, 70 percent of people have said that they accept the result and think it should be implemented. That’s not the same as people saying that if there were another vote tomorrow, they wouldn’t vote the same way, but having had the vote, most people have accepted it. There are some irreconcilables but they’re a relatively small number.
MK: On the subject of remaining: Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson (both in favor of Leave) think that remaining would be better than the current deal as it is. Do you agree with that?
JRM: No. I think that’s a mistake. I think that it is better to leave in one way or another than to remain.
MK:You’re sometimes called extreme . . .
JRM: Only by the chancellor of the exchequer. And the treasury gets all of its forecasts wrong. I mean, [the chancellor’s recent prediction that the confidence vote would “flush out the extremists” within the Tory party who are promoting no-deal] is just another failed politicized treasury forecast and I don’t think anybody takes them seriously anymore.
MK: What do you think about the argument that Britain’s always been a gradualist country and Brexit would invert 40 years of integration in one swoop — and wouldn’t baby steps be better?
JRM: I don’t think it’s true that we’ve been a gradualist country. I think that most constitutional steps are taken in quite a big way. And how far do you want me to go back? But the development of the British constitution has never been that some clever person sat down and worked out where we go. It’s been that in response to some form of crisis some change has happened.
So if we go back to Magna Carta, 1215; or you go back to 1265 Simon de Montfort’s Parliament, you scurry through to the Reformation, the Civil War, to the Glorious Revolution to 1832 Great Reform Bill, 1911 the House of Lords, 1947 independence for India. All of these things happened really quite remarkably suddenly. People had talked about them before, but they happened in response to specific events. And they’re not like the Americans’ constitution — beautifully thought through by clever people — it’s just happened in response to immediate concerns and crises.
MK: What do you say to people who suggest that the sky is falling in at the prospect of no deal?
JRM: It’s just silly. The sky isn’t falling in.
MK: I mean I’m being unfair, of course, because I’m sure they wouldn’t say that exactly.
JRM: Well it basically is what they say — you’re quite right. I think people often worry disproportionately about the unknown. And the unknown is scary whereas the known is a reality. And that once we’ve left and the sun still rises the next day people will realize that it isn’t so bad after all.
MK: You would expect some turbulence while things got worked out, I imagine.
JRM: Well there could be. This really is up to the EU. The question I’ve never been able to answer — and nor any Euroskeptic — is what happens in the event that the EU gives us a punishment Brexit and deliberately makes things difficult to show that leaving has unpleasant consequences. If they did that they’d be in breach of various international treaties, and it would be an odd way for an ally to behave towards a friendly nation, and not least as we’re one of the major contributors to the defense of Europe.
But that’s the thing: I can’t promise you that the EU won’t behave irrationally. If the EU behaves in accordance to international law, both in terms of law and treaty arrangement, then leaving without an agreement is not problematic. And it’s quite interesting, you’re beginning to see the EU make announcements about how it will roll things over in the event of us leaving without an agreement in order to smooth the edges — which is as much in their interests as it is in ours.
MK: And to move away from the EU — how could America be helpful at this point?
JRM: Well I think the opportunity of a trade deal with America is a good one for the U.K. and that has been discussed. As I understand, I believe it was offered to the prime minister, and I think she should have accepted it when it was offered — and that would be a very positive step once we’ve left to show that we can do business with the rest of the world.
But I think the really interesting things that we could do beyond that — New York and London are the most important global financial centers, and it’d make much more sense for us to liaise more closely over our financial-services regulations rather than fussing about the second- and third-tier European financial centers. Because if New York and London could agree, that sets the global financial standards for the whole world in way that Frankfurt, Paris, and Luxembourg cease to be extraordinarily important in this context.
MK: Do you think President Trump’s comments about May’s deal at various stages — has that been a help or a hindrance?
JRM: It’s a very difficult question to answer. Leaders of other countries always need to be very careful about the effect their comments have on domestic politics. When former president Obama came over and said we’d be at the back of the queue if we didn’t do what he told us to, as somebody campaigning for a Leave vote I was absolutely delighted — that pushed our bit up dramatically, and so any comments from abroad can have a very mixed effect. I think it depends on what it’s focused on. If it’s focused on the possibilities with America once we’ve left, that’s beneficial. If it’s given in a rather lecturing and sneering tone of the former president, that has the opposite effect of the one that’s intended.
MK: The New York Times seems to suggest that Brexit is an expression of far-right populism, xenophobia, etc. Would you like to set the record straight?
JRM: Well, that’s what you expect of far-left newspapers. The Guardian, the New York Times have this worldview of the metropolitan elite which is not shared by normal people.
MK: I’m interested you just used the term “far left.” Do you think “far left” and “far right” are overused nowadays?
JRM: Oh yes, definitely. But as they use these terms, I think they deserve a taste of their own medicine.
MK: So, you’re using it relatively.
JRM: Yes, relatively . . . I don’t think they’re Communists, Bolsheviks. [Laughs]
MK: Not Bolsheviks?
JRM: Well, I hope not.
MK: But do you think that some Brexiteers oversold Brexit?
JRM: Oh no, no! I think the advantages of Brexit are absolutely enormous economically because we will no longer have the constraints that we have with the European Union and we won’t be subject to the EU’s regulatory system that is anti-enterprise and anti-free-market. Which favors big-business incumbents.
So it favors those who are already in place at the expense of consumers. And moving away from that allows us to have more free markets and therefore more economic prosperity because we know from history that free markets increase the standard of living people within any given country, so no, the advantages are extremely exciting. It’s just a question of grasping them, and that needs government action to take them fully. Which is where you get into difficulties with the backstop because the backstop would deny us advantages.
MK: Do you think it’s in the rest of the world’s interests to be pro-Brexit?
JRM: Frankly, outside the European Union, it doesn’t really matter to the rest of the world one way or another. The European Union is important to European nations because of their vested interests. It protects the German manufacturing interests, subsidizes French farmers at the expense of British taxpayers, and so on. So it’s of interest to EU member states. But from a U.S. point of view, frankly NATO is much more important than the European Union.
MK: If you were to put it in percentages: What do you think is the chance that Britain leaves on March 29?
JRM: I think it’s rising, but it’s difficult to give a specific figure. But I think it is the most likely outcome and the chance has been rising recently because the Withdrawal Agreement is so bad.