Company-keeping used to be condemned by the Catholic Church . It placed those who kept each other’s company in the way of temptation, sin and hell-fire. Young girls (i.e. nineteen year olds and upwards) were regularly instructed that company-keeping without an intention of early marriage was gravely sinful. Worse still, needless to say, was company-keeping with a non-Catholic.
These ideas are still to be found on right-wing Catholic websites and blogs in the US but are seldom heard closer to home these days.
The phrase came to mind when listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg, a very Catholic, very conservative Tory MP with extreme hard-line Brexit views, who gave a hard-line Brexit radio interview this weekend.
Apparently, the latest possibility mooted by the more balanced Cabinet members is that the UK may choose to formally leave the EU Customs Union but to negotiate instead a separate comprehensive free trade in goods described as “a customs union”. Small “c”, small “u”.
The more attentive readers of this column will recall that I have repeatedly predicted and advocated that the UK should negotiate an “analogue” of membership of the Customs Union. That solution allows free trade in goods between the UK and the EU, prevents the establishment of physical customs posts and documentation on EU-UK trade, and would satisfy the great majority of members of the UK’s CBI and Britain’s industrialists and exporters and retailers.
Such an outcome, moreover, eliminates nearly all the dangers of a “hard border” on this island and the problems for UK-Irish trade in goods. It is an outcome for which Iveagh House and Merrion Street are energetically striving behind the scenes.
Does it matter whether it is described as “ a bespoke customs union” or as a “comprehensive free-trading partnership”? Technically there is no difference, but perhaps politically it is important to the business of saving Tory face – or, rather, some Tory faces.
And so one might hope that this potential fig-leaf would not be instantly shot down by hard-line Brexiteers in the UK domestic debate.
Alas, Jacob Rees Mogg was in “taking no prisoners” mood. He pointed out that such a bespoke customs union tailored for the UK would prevent or inhibit the UK from negotiating free trade agreements with third parties and would involve the maintenance of a tariff wall similar to the EU’s common external tariff.
That outcome, he said, was completely unacceptable. Britain had to be free to trade tariff-free with whomsoever she chooses. Otherwise, he said, British consumers would suffer the consequences of having to live behind tariffs designed to protect “inefficient” EU member states industries.
In effect, Rees Mogg either does not understand or does not care that the UK, in his scenario, would have to trade with the EU member states over the Common External Tariff wall. That would include Ireland and that would mean a hard border.
Rees Mogg has been company-keeping with Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liam Fox for some time. They and the gaggle of about thirty-five “swivel-eyed loons” form the core of the hard Brexit contingent at Westminster. Numerically it constitutes less than 10% of the total number of MPs. But they have been ratcheting up the clamour for a hard Brexit negotiating stance - egged on by the majority of the Tory-supporting press.
When they are not plotting to have Philip Hammond fired for being soft, they start stoking rumours about a heave against Theresa. They have little Tory support for these rough-house tactics which are redolent of the boisterous, anarchy of an Oxbridge student dining club. They have no viable alternative candidate for leader of the Party. So gormless and talentless are they that some of the actually speak among themselves of backing Rees Mogg for Downing Street!
Theresa May is far stronger than might appear. Most Tory MPs do not want to risk an election. They do not want the party to split. The hard-line Brexiteers well know that if they attempt an unsuccessful heave and are fired for their trouble, Theresa May and Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd will simply negotiate a soft Brexit with the tacit support of the Labour, SNP, Lib Dems, and the great majority of the House of Lords - all while they sit licking their wounds and watching their position unravel. Pulling the plug and forcing an election in those circumstances would be politically suicidal.
As has been said: “The trouble with political suicide is that you live to regret it.”
But we are now approaching a crunch-point - if not the crunch point. David Davis, the Brexit Minister, has to receive his overall strategy brief from the cabinet. Fudging can only last so long. Cabinet meetings are scheduled to deal with the issue in the coming weeks. While Theresa May may well wish to prolong political ambiguity in support of Tory party unity, Davis must be given instructions.
Perhaps some fiendishly clever plan will yet be hatched in Downing Street which will allow Davis to pursue alternative outcomes simultaneously on the basis that every avenue must be thoroughly explored.
By this means the “can” could be kicked down the road, and the swivel-eyed loons and their media backers kept guessing and at bay for up to a year. Then when Davis brings back both a soft Brexit deal and a hard Brexit deal as the binary choice to be made, Theresa May would opt for the soft model and tell her opponents within the party that she would be happy to bring that choice to the voters if they pull the plug on her government.
It is an irony indeed that the tiny and now extinguished splinter group, UKIP, forced the Tories to have a referendum, and now that another small minority faction within the electorally-humbled Tory party is kicking up such a fuss on the terms of Brexit. Both are exploiting the only and ultimate Tory party core value – survival.
Rust-belt post-industrial Northern England, separatist Scotland, struggling Wales, and economic basket-case of Northern Ireland, and their peoples, simply count for nothing when the battle for Tory seats in the shires is the issue.
But when the City and the CBI have to choose between those with swivel-eyes and those with sharp eyes looking out for Britain’s economic future, the case for a soft Brexit should be easily made, however embarrassing for Jacob Rees Mogg and his company-keepers. Company-keeping, as the Church once told us, can only lead to perdition.