Jacob Rees-Mogg's Corn Laws analogy is an argument against Brexit

Conservative prime minister Robert Peel put country before party by backing the abolition of punitive tariffs. 

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In advance of this week’s Chequers summit on Brexit, Jacob Rees-Mogg has issued another of his mafioso-style threats. “Nice premiership there, Theresa. Be a shame if something happened to it.”

After warning that “May must stand firm for what she herself has promised”, Rees-Mogg invokes the fate of Conservative prime minister Robert Peel who “did decide to break his manifesto pledge and passed legislation [Corn Laws repeal] with the majority of his party voting the other way so leaving him dependent on opposition votes. This left the Conservatives out of majority office for twenty-eight years, 1846 to 1874”.

By implication, Rees-Mogg warns May that should she seek to achieve a “soft Brexit” with the support of opposition MPs, she will soon be ousted (as Peel was). The Corn Laws split, which led to a breakaway Peelite faction and the eventual formation of the Liberal Party, is often referenced by Brexit commentators. The oddity is that Rees-Mogg believes this analogy favours Tory Leavers.

Peel is traditionally revered by historians as a prime minister who put country before party. While most Tory MPs favoured the Corn Laws (tariffs and other trade restrictions on imported food and grains), which ensured lucrative profits for landowners, free traders demanded their repeal to protect the living standards of the poor and, most urgently, to alleviate the Irish famine. After eventually siding with the latter, Peel won the vote by 327 to 229 but resigned as prime minister just a month later.

History, however, absolved him. The repeal of the Corn Laws ushered in a new era of free trade and lower food prices. As Rees-Mogg himself concedes, it was “a policy that worked”. Yet he nevertheless insists that “the Prime Minister must stick to her righteous cause and deliver what she has said she would”.

In other words, May should put party before country by backing UK withdrawal from the EU’s single market and customs union, in what would be the greatest act of national self-harm in the post-war era. Were the Prime Minister to abandon this policy, she certainly would split her party - but she would also protect the British economy and living standards. 

Peel is not the only Tory leader incorrectly cited by the Brexiteers. Winston Churchill’s “bulldog spirit” is also regularly invoked. But the analogy is again inappropriate. In the 1930s, Churchill, like Peel, defied established Tory opinion to oppose appeasement. His true inheritors are not those who back a “hard Brexit” - as favoured by Conservative members - but those who stand against this dogmatic tide.

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.