ANALYSIS: The ERG coup appears to be over - but Theresa May has bigger fish to fry

Posted On: 
20th November 2018

History tells us that any MPs plotting to bring down a Prime Minister had better make sure they have their ducks in a row before they launch a coup.

Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker staged an extroadinary press conference in Westminster last week
Credit: 
PA Images

It appears to be a lesson that Jacob Rees-Mogg forgot. Alongside European Research Group fixer Steve Baker, Rees-Mogg staged an astonishing press conference last week to declare he was submitting a letter of no-confidence in the PM and urging other Tories furious about her Brexit plans to do the same.

Speculation was rife that the 48 letters required to trigger a vote of no-confidence could be in the hands of 1922 Committee chair Graham Brady by the end of the day. And then… nothing happened. On Friday, Baker began rolling back - saying he had no idea where the numbers were at, despite having previously suggested the 48 was a dead cert.

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Over the weekend, Brady confirmed the numbers required were still not in the bag, and revealed on the radio that he was even being asked about the state of play in the supermarket. Which rather begged the question, where does he do his shopping?

Tories who were mulling handing in a letter consulted with their local parties to gauge the feeling about toppling the PM. The day of reckoning would be Monday.

And then… nothing happened. The ERG coup appears to have failed - with Baker and Rees-Mogg looking rather less powerful than they had hoped to suggest. Rees-Mogg even admitted himself this morning that getting the letters had been more "difficult" than he had expected. Asked whether the putsch had gone a bit 'Dad's Army' he said: "I have always admired Captain Mainwaring." Fellow Tory MPs are less than impressed. "It seems a weekend of phone begging by Rees-Mogg and [Boris] Johnson still hasn’t yielded results despite five weeks of hype,” one tells PoliticsHome. “Even if they get the names it’s a pretty lame effort.”

Others laid into the timing of the move, with one former minister saying: “Waiting until she brings this withdrawal agreement out is too bloody late.” They added: “We could have changed leader earlier - but doing it now will just make the party look completely shambolic – it’s like regicide.” A government source said the big media push by the ERG figures on Thursday was “pathetic”. “You cannot do that unless you get the 48 names on a sheet and you say ‘here you are, it's happening’,” they said. “You don't stand there with Steve Baker and Andrew Bridgen and make it obvious you have nothing.”

The results of the failed coup are an emboldened PM and an increasingly divided ERG. One senior member of the group was at pains to distance themselves from the move, saying: “There is no ERG campaign against the PM. It conducts research not campaigning. Each MP makes their own decisions about what they do.” Tory MP John Redwood - a senior figure in the eurosceptic movement - said as much in a blog on Monday.

Another ERG member however said there was “always hope” of bringing the PM down - while a former Cabinet minister noted there would always be room for surprises. “With IDS no-one really knew who had submitted letters and who hadn’t - but after it was all over it turned out some pretty surprising people had. Even the former chief whip had sent in a letter. So you never quite know.”

Failed coup or not, many Tories agree the real vote of no-confidence will come when the PM puts her deal to MPs in the Commons. The so-called ‘meaningful vote’ is all-but certain to reject the withdrawal agreement, which would deal a hammer blow to the Government and potentially end Theresa May premiership. Some pro-Brexit figures who have held themselves back from submitting letters are thought to be waiting for that killer blow before they strike.

With the DUP repeatedly making clear they will not support the Government when the deal reaches the Commons, the PM has far bigger fish to fry than the shambolic ERG coup.