Rees-Mogg signals readiness to back May’s Brexit deal

Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading Conservative Eurosceptic MP, has signalled he is now ready to back Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, as pro-EU forces in parliament take control of the House of Commons timetable to test softer alternatives.

Mr Rees-Mogg, who heads the pro-Brexit European Research Group, a majority of whose members have twice contributed to the deal’s overwhelming defeats in parliament, acknowledged that unless MPs fell behind the agreement Britain could remain in the EU.

“The choice seems to be Mrs May’s deal or no Brexit,” Mr Rees-Mogg said on Twitter on Tuesday.

“Is this deal worse than not leaving?” he added in a podcast recorded for the ConservativeHome website. “No, definitely not. If we take this deal we are legally out of the EU . . . Being legally out is of great importance. It restores our independence.”

Mr Rees-Mogg has in the past attacked the deal for potentially reducing Britain to a “slave state” because of the so-called backstop, a measure that could indefinitely yoke the UK to a customs union with Brussels.

But in his comments on Tuesday, Mr Rees-Mogg argued that his preferred option of leaving the EU without a deal was no longer an option.

“The prime minister does not want to leave without a deal, the cabinet doesn’t want to leave without a deal and the British parliament doesn’t want to leave without a deal,” he said. “It is therefore very difficult to see how you get to leaving without a deal.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg heads the pro-Brexit European Research Group

Mr Rees-Mogg’s backing could change the parliamentary arithmetic around the deal, which Mrs May is looking at taking back to the House of Commons this week.

But even if he brings over a dozen of the about 80 ERG’s MPs, the group is split and some still say they will oppose the deal. At least 20 are unlikely to back down on the resistance.

One member of the ERG said: “There are not enough will follow Jacob and back the deal unless she agrees to go.”

Another added: “It’s still not looking as though she will have the numbers.”

That means Mrs May would still have to win round the 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party who normally provide her minority government with a majority in parliament but have deep misgivings of their own about the backstop. She will also have to convert a significant number of Labour MPs.

The EU has decided that if the deal does not pass the Commons this week, the UK will be due to leave the bloc on April 12, rather than obtaining a longer extension of its membership until May 22.

A senior UK government minister warned opponents of Mrs May’s deal to swing behind it because any alternatives “are all worse” after MPs backed a cross-party effort to develop a plan B.

The predominantly pro-Remain parliament on Monday night voted by 329 to 302 to seize control of the House of Commons timetable and test support for alternatives to Mrs May’s withdrawal deal.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told LBC radio on Tuesday that the options of Eurosceptics were narrowing. “Clearly the Commons has shown last night that it has the determination to ensure that there is not a no-deal Brexit,” he said.

“Anyone who wants to deliver on the result of the referendum, and do so in a positive way that’s good for the economy and allow us to get on and deliver for people should get on and vote for the prime minister’s deal.”

He said that while Mrs May would listen to the Commons, she could not “pre-commit” to supporting any favoured Brexit option MPs vote for. “The Commons might vote for an idea that is completely impractical and it might vote for two ideas that are incompatible,” he warned.

Mrs May is due to hold a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning where ministers are expected to discuss the possibility of giving Conservative MPs a free vote on the series of so-called indicative votes to develop a plan B scheduled to take place in the Commons on Wednesday.

The prime minister said on Monday she would engage “constructively” with the process but stressed the government could not back any proposal that breached the Conservative manifesto at the 2017 election. That would exclude support for any of the “soft Brexit” alternatives being considered by MPs.

Senior ERG members have told Mrs May she will have to set out a timetable for her departure from Downing Street if she is to persuade Eurosceptic Tories to back her Brexit deal.

After a meeting of the ERG on Monday night, one MP in the group said there was a “50-50” split in the room in favour of voting for the deal.

“Some of us are trying to make them see sense,” said one MP after the meeting. “If we don’t vote for Brexit now we won’t get it.”

Questioned on whether the DUP could align with the ERG over the deal, Jim Shannon, one of the Northern Irish party’s MPs, told the BBC’s Today programme: “Disappointingly from their point of view, some of those seem to have filtered away over the night.”

He said: “They have not all changed their opinion but they maybe see Brexit as the greater issue rather than the Union.”

“We see the Union as the big issue, as the priority, and that is what we are focusing on.”

A DUP spokesman said the party’s opposition to the deal — which its 10 MPs have voted against twice — “has not changed”.


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