The arrival of Jacob Rees-Mogg in any particular political situation is generally not a great sign, is it? A few weeks out from the 2019 election, the honourable member for the 18th Century & Bad Latin North East brought the insight for which he’s justly famed to bear on the Grenfell situation, suggesting that those who had died after listening to fire brigade advice to remain in their homes had lacked the “common sense” to flee the building.
Last week’s comments inaccurately comparing the morning after pill to abortion (such pills do not induce abortion, but prevent fertilisation) may cause even more damage, by virtue of the fact they could actually affect the choices that people have yet to make. It is one thing to hold anti-abortion views for religious reasons, quite another to spread actual misinformation, and another still to profit from the sale of abortion pills in Indonesia while you’re doing it. Lord knows there are some truly terrible people in and around this government, but Rees-Mogg’s unique combination of intolerance, hypocrisy and sheer, baffling stupidity takes some beating.
Anyway, as of this week, it’s his job to fix Brexit. Following Monday’s rearrangement of government deckchairs, the former Leader of the House of Commons holds the newly made up post of “Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency”. I suppose we’re meant to take from this that an exhausted government is reverting to its culture war comfort zone of trolling Remainers, but the main thing this job title brings to my mind is the way knackered parents keep small children occupied by telling them to search the garden for fairies or somesuch.
On Thursday the hunt for fairies took Rees-Mogg to the pages of the Sun, whose readers he implored to write in identifying “ANY petty old EU regulation that should be abolished”. Whether inviting the sorts of people who write angry letters to newspapers to get in touch is really the best way of researching fiddly and technical regulatory reform is left for the reader to imagine, but the precedents aren’t great. During the coalition’s “Red Tape Challenge”, around 21,000 different regulations were placed online, on the assumption that the general public would identify which of them were stupid and save the government a job.
Alas, it turned out, the general public wasn’t interested. What actually happened was that the government found itself under siege from lobbyists determined to protect the status quo because they were the only ones who actually cared. “Some NGOs were honest: this is a fundraising gift from the government to mobilise our activists,” Polly Mackenzie of the think tank Demos, who worked on the government’s campaign, tweeted last week. Still, nobody in the coalition thought of the simple expedient of just asking Sun readers, best one can tell, so perhaps this time everything will be different.
There’s a more philosophical problem with the idea of treating Brexit as an opportunity for a sort of bonfire of the regulations. A lot of those regulations – on the environment, product safety or working conditions – are incredibly popular, and the thing that held them in place was not Britain’s membership of the European Union but a perfectly sensible desire on behalf of successive governments not to piss off the general public. Others stem from international trade arrangements: those are the sorts of things we can ditch, thanks to Brexit, but since it’ll only make it harder to sell British products and services abroad I’m not entirely convinced that counts as an opportunity.
While Rees-Mogg combs Whitehall for fairies, Brexit continues to impact national life in other ways. The row over customs checks between Britain and Northern Ireland led the latter’s First Minister to resign a week ago (3 February), effectively bringing the province’s devolved government crashing down once again. Inflation now stands at around 7 per cent in the UK, and while it’d be foolish to blame this entirely on Brexit, it’d be naive too to pretend that making it harder to get goods across the Channel is no factor at all. Meanwhile, the A20 in southern Kent looks like a lorry park once again, as checks on cross-channel paperwork cause six-mile tailbacks. If Rees-Mogg really wants to cut red tape, perhaps he should propose Britain joins the single market.
He won’t, of course. A man capable of railing against the evils of abortion while also conveniently profiting from it is not going to let a little thing like the slow motion collapse of the British economy divert him from the one true path. But I’m not sure he’ll be able to find enough “Brexit opportunities” to please the ultras: real Brexit, like real communism, will never be tried, and actually existing Brexit can only ever disappoint those who expected the Earth. Sooner or later, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities is going to have to tell them fairies don’t exist. Steve Baker will be calling Rees-Mogg a closet Remainer before the year is out, you mark my words.