Jacob Rees-Mogg’s wrecking amendments prove it is Labour, not the Brexiteers, in control

Unless the Opposition plays ball, the ERG has no power.

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Nice precarious hold on power you’ve got there, Prime Minister. Shame if anything happened to it.

The European Research Group will seek to make that threat plain with a series of amendments to the Trade and Customs Bill tabled by Jacob Rees-Mogg.

But looking at the amendments in full, they illustrate the ERG’s weakness, rather than its strength.

The biggest problem, of course, is that for them to be effective at all they not only have to deliver their seven rebels but the opposition parties have to opt to vote with them. There is, of course, precedent for the Labour party voting against its own policy preferences on Europe to make life difficult  for a weak Conservative government: John Smith did the same over Maastricht. You can see how Labour could find an excuse to vote for these amendments – but if the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and Caroline Lucas vote against the ERG’s amendments (and in the case of all four of those groups you can see a strong political case for them in voting against “the hard Brexit of the ERG”) it is tricky to see how any rebellion won’t be cancelled out by other parties.  

It is also worth assuming that some pro-European Labour MPs will also vote down the ERG’s amendments. And from a policy perspective, the amendments create problems for the hard Brexiteers as much as Theresa May, in some cases more.

Take that concerning the Irish border, which would legally prohibit a separate customs regime for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The government could very easily defuse this by tabling a near-identical amendment or simply accepting this one, and May has in case already committed to not having further barriers between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. But this is a problem for the ERG, not the government: May can keep this promise and satisfy hers and Vote Leave’s pledge on avoiding the Irish border with a Brexit that keeps the United Kingdom as a whole within the regulatory and customs orbit of the European Union. It isn’t the soft Brexiteers who are hamstrung by the need to preserve an open border between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom: it is the Brexiteers.

And that exposes the real problem – if the Brexiteers want to damage Theresa May, they will have to find ways that harm her more than them, and where the support of the Opposition is guaranteed: but that will require a willingness to wreck domestic legislation, not simply to tack amendments to Brexit laws.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.