Steve Baker: “I’m very pleased we’ve won. But it should have been sorted out years ago”
With the UK on the way out of the European Union, you might expect Steve Baker to be feeling triumphant. Instead, the Brexiteer feels a degree of “melancholy” at the events of the past three years. Sebastian Whale talks to colleagues past and present about the Wycombe MP; the reluctant ‘Brexit hardman’ who played a crucial role in marshalling Eurosceptics in parliament. Photography by Baldo Sciacca
Steve Baker skydives, he does not base jump. This is an important distinction. Base jumping involves parachuting from a fixed structure such as a building or a cliff. It is considered one of the most precarious recreational activities in the world. “It’s too bloody dangerous, the margins for error are too small, you can’t use your reserve parachute,” says Baker. His friend, Jake Simkins, died in an accident on the Greek island of Zante more than seven years ago.
“Skydiving is relatively safe, so long as you’re deliberate about what you do, put the right equipment on in the right way, pre-plan what you’re doing and do the right thing at the right time. Even if something goes wrong, you’ve got a very, very high chance of surviving.”
Something did go wrong for Baker back in 2018. He was on a skydive in the Algarve when the left steering toggle on his parachute jammed, leading to a fast-spiral dive through 2,000 feet. He tried twice to release it, before deploying the reserve chute. He landed next to the clubhouse of a nearby golf course. “It was great,” he says.
The truth is Baker was prepared for such a scenario. “I just did the drills,” he says, calmly. “I have found that I’m fine in these moments.”
To the untrained observer, Baker is something of a political risk-taker. But the former Royal Air Force engineer is more methodical than that. For years, he has helped to marshal a group of Tory MPs in the House of Commons. He has earned a reputation as a fixer; a convenor of Eurosceptic resistance.
With the UK set to leave the European Union, fulfilling years of campaigning, graft and turmoil, you would expect Baker to be somewhat jubilant. Instead, the Brexiteer is feeling “melancholy”. Quoting the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo, he says: “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”
He explains: “The reality is, the sheer price, the cost throughout this whole thing – in national division, in anxiety, in uncertainty for companies – it’s just so high. Yes, I’m very pleased we’ve won. It is necessary and right that we leave the European Union, but it should have been sorted out years ago.”
Baker’s solemn mood reflects that he feels for the past 18-months or so, he has transitioned from political skydiving to something more high risk. For a meticulous planner, the cost has been high.
“I really knew we were into political base jumping and we have survived it, thank God. And I don’t want to do it again. Ever.”
Steven John Baker was born on 6 June 1971 in St Austell in Cornwall. His father, Mike Baker, is a retired carpenter, while his mum worked as an accounting clerk. Heralding from Cornwall, the Bakers voted liberal.
“Some of the most important things I’ve ever learned have been from my mother. Having the courage to try and do a thing you don’t know how to do and work out how to get through it, that’s one of the best gifts my dad ever gave me,” Baker says.
Baker attended Poltair school in St Austell after earning a scholarship to attend Tawstock Court for his final year of primary school, aged 13. Dressed in a pink uniform and a pink hat, with “goofy teeth”, Baker recalls trying to understand all the unwritten rules at the public school. “When I think of myself as that geeky working-class kid, it’s still very, very difficult to come to terms with who I actually am now who is someone who is very widely known and has wielded a dread-power to split the Conservative party,” he says.
Baker, a staunch Christian, was baptised in the sea when he was a teenager. His faith is central to his character, though he believes in secular politics. “It is absolutely fundamental to who I am that I am a Christian. I don’t think of myself as a religious person, I just am a Christian,” he says. When asked if there is space for religion and politics to co-exist, Baker replies: “What happens I’m afraid with my Christian brothers and sisters, as so often in politics, is they allow themselves to be shown the landmine and then they jump on the landmine with both feet.” His political mantra is: “Do not give into evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it.”
Baker, who dabbles in catamaran racing and motorbiking, turned towards adventure sports in part because he couldn’t catch a ball. “If I do something that’s deliberate and pre-planned and careful, I do rather enjoy doing difficult stuff and getting away with it,” he says.
After taking A-Levels at St Austell Sixth Form College, Baker studied aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton. He joined the Royal Air Force as an engineer officer, with his service taking him across the globe from Alaska to Hong Kong. His wife, Beth, served as a senior officer in the Royal Air Force medical branch until 2010. On the wall of Baker’s office is a picture of Beth at the head of a stretcher moving a wounded soldier onto a helicopter.
Beth did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I’ll never forget wrapping my wife’s assault rifle in hessian at RAF Cottesmore when she was in the air force and I wasn’t,” Baker says. Baker, who voted for military intervention in Libya but against in Syria in 2013, says: “I’m just not voting for wars we don’t have to have. I’m just not doing it, come what may.”
Baker received an MSc in Computer Science from St Cross College, Oxford. After 10 years in the RAF, he enjoyed a successful career as a software engineer and consultant, which saw him employed as chief architect of global financing and asset service platforms at Lehman Brothers from 2006-2008, before the bank’s collapse.
It was developments in the European Union that inspired Baker, who voted Liberal at his first election, to take up politics. “I only joined the Conservative party because I was furious about the Lisbon treaty,” he says. His revulsion at member states not receiving a meaningful say on the proposed integration, coupled with a disdain for economists and politicians, inspired him to get involved.
Baker, who is a self-taught economist, trawled through books on political philosophy. “I’m not very good at reading history – I get bored with stories – but I like ideas,” he says. “I read myself silly and worked out what kind of politics I believed in and the answer was old English classical liberalism.”
Though he hesitates to call himself a libertarian, Baker is about as close as you can come to one without being labelled as such. Daniel Hannan, the Conservative Eurosceptic and now former MEP, explains: “He is one of the few people who I have seen physically flinch at the thought of the Government spending more money. Really, his issue was not initially the EU except insofar as he was generally sceptical of big government and saw the EU as part of that. The Euroscepticism developed out of that.”
Ahead of the 2010 election, he was selected as the Conservative candidate in Wycombe, replacing the outgoing Paul Goodman. Though he won admirers during his early years as an MP, Baker found life frustrating. “The whole system is set up to stop you achieving anything,” he told The House in 2012. A propensity to deviate from the party line meant that promotion to the frontbench was proving unlikely. During his first parliament, he served on the Transport and Treasury select committees and was elected to the executive of the 1922 group of Tory MPs.
In October 2011, Baker was among the 81 Tory MPs to vote in favour of a referendum on membership of the European Union. Though the non-binding motion was defeated, the scale of the pushback – the largest post-war rebellion of its kind at this stage – was significant. More than a year later, he was among the Tory MPs to rebel against David Cameron over the EU budget, and in March 2013, Baker supported an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, lodged by John Baron, which criticised the lack of legislation to hold an in/out vote. Cameron, who had committed to a public vote during his Bloomberg speech months earlier, moved to quell the rebellion by pledging to produce a draft referendum bill.
Baker was catching the eye of fellow Eurosceptics. Hannan had been lining up a fixer for Tory MPs for some time. His previous nominees, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless had both defected to Ukip, while David Heathcoat-Amory, a former ERG chairman, had lost his seat. The so-called Men of Maastricht – the group of Conservative backbenchers who rebelled against John Major in the 1990s – were not viewed as capable of uniting MPs together. “That was when I alighted on Steve,” Hannan explains.
When Hannan approached Baker about the informal role, he said there was no one else to do it. “He didn’t need too much convincing, because he believed in it. He was one of a handful of people who never doubted that Leave was going to win. He did the job beautifully,” Hannan says.
Carswell says: “We identified him early on in the 2010 parliament as one of those rare eurosceptics who couldn’t be bought off, whereas many could be down the years with the promise of promotion or a slightly bigger office. That made us see him as something special.”
Baker, who founded Conservatives for Britain in 2015, proved a key figure on the parliamentary frontline. In February 2016, he accused Cameron of attempting to “polish poo” as the prime minister presented his renegotiated relationship with Brussels. “It was the most effective thing I’ve ever done in politics... I didn’t like doing it because it was coarse, it was vulgar. Unfortunately, it was necessary,” Baker told me in 2018.
When a putsch was launched by board members of Vote Leave and several MPs against Dominic Cummings, then strategist and campaign director of the organisation, Baker was central in neutralising the move. Carswell recalls: “He was absolutely key in helping us quash the attempted coup attempt which I understand is the subject of a film.”
In the wake of the referendum result – which Baker is still yet to celebrate – he reformed the European Research Group. He created a steering committee and appointed two officers that voted Remain in the referendum, John Penrose and Charlie Elphicke.
Under his stewardship, the ERG grew in numbers. It has two tiers of affiliation – subscribers and members – and at its height was thought to have around 60-80 MPs in its roster. The group gained notoriety as Brexit’s praetorian guard, while others viewed the ERG to be nothing more than a party within a party. “It’s a caucus with an ideology,” a Cabinet minister told me during the last parliament. “They are, some of them, prepared to lose every other achievement of Conservative government, including putting our economy back on track, in order to get where they’ve always wanted to be.”
Following the disastrous 2017 election for the Conservatives, Baker was made a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union. His successors as ERG chair – Suella Fernandes and Jacob Rees-Mogg – would also later find themselves in government. In the role, Baker took through the EU Withdrawal Act; an achievement he still holds with great pride. But in July 2018, Baker, along with David Davis and Boris Johnson, resigned from the Government.
Baker was about to enter political base jumping. “Unfortunately, once we got into needing to chuck Chequers, I’m afraid it just became war and all anybody remembers is the ERG being a bunch of warriors,” he says.
Sitting among a litany of skydiving photos and political memorabilia on Steve Baker’s parliamentary walls is an image of a half-naked character from the movie 300, with Baker’s face superimposed on top. It is perhaps an ironic homage to one of many nicknames the so-called ‘Brexit hardman’ has earned in recent years.
Baker was one of 28 Conservative MPs to vote against Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement at three times of asking. The Spartans, as they became known, have been derided for their obstinance. Many feared their apparent ideological intransigence could see Brexit scuppered altogether. After May’s third defeat, with a resurgent Commons seeking to take control of the order paper, leaving the European Union came into doubt.
Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns says: “All of us so-called Spartans who voted against it, we could see what was happening to our party, to our country, to the trust in democracy, and we had to fight like a dog, tooth and nail to make sure we maintained it. Certainly, Steve was at the forefront of it.”
This took its toll on Baker, who was captured in tears on a BBC documentary. But he held out, believing that May’s deal was tantamount to Brexit in name only, with its commitment on a customs union.
Daniel Hannan too was being worn down by what he was seeing. “By the beginning of 2019, I now realise I was actually becoming affected by the external political mood... I was becoming withdrawn, I was snapping at people, I was drinking too much. It was only really when Boris took over that the sun came out again.”
Months earlier, Baker was among those to hand in their letter to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 committee, declaring his lack of confidence in May’s leadership. The subsequent vote, which ostensibly saw May’s position firmed up, showed that the Brexiteers acted prematurely. There were also splits among Eurosceptics over the third meaningful vote, with Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Jacob Rees-Mogg among those to vote in favour.
Baker, along with fellow Brexiteer Mark Francois, who acted as ERG chief whip, had been marshalling colleagues on the numerous votes that took place in the first six months of 2019. “It’s his organisational skills, his meticulous attention to detail. He was there, he was on the ball and he has got that sharp mind for that,” says Jenkyns.
On one occasion, Baker recalls sending out a WhatsApp broadcast message and managing to corral more than 70 MPs through the rebel lobby after the division bell started ringing. “That’s a hell of a power for somebody to wield from the backbenches and I rather regret ever having had to wield it,” he says.
Members of the ERG largely rallied behind Boris Johnson’s bid to become the next Tory leader. Baker was tipped for a big job. He ventured into Downing St as Johnson selected his new team but was made to wait more than an hour. He was on his way out of the building before being called back by aides. “I don’t know now whether that was a game or a real thing, but that’s by the by,” he comments.
Johnson offered Baker the role of DExEU minister – a position he had resigned from more than a year earlier. He was plainly deeply disappointed at the offer, which came soon after Michael Gove was given a beefed-up Brexit role in the Cabinet Office. “We sat in the Cabinet room and we had a very interesting conversation that I don’t want to discuss until after he’s stopped being Prime Minister,” he says. With some poignancy, he adds: “I’ve walked a long way with Boris Johnson.” He highlights his efforts in neutralising an attack by several ambassadors when he was Foreign Secretary, among other interventions in Johnson’s favour.
I ask if Baker feels betrayed by the PM. “No, I would never say that. Absolutely not,” he says. How about let down? “I would say that forming a government is an extremely difficult thing to do in any circumstances... What was it that Churchill said to parliament, ‘People will make allowances’? I will absolutely make all allowances. I’ve got no problem with him whatsoever.”
With Johnson rumoured to be lining up an overhaul of his top team in February, Baker does not expect to get the call-up. “Quite honestly, I’m not expecting to be put into the Government,” he says. But would he like to be? “Yes, is the short answer, because when I go back through my copious notes of the last five years, I find that it turns out, against all my expectations, I was happiest when a minister,” he says. As for a role, he cites working in peace, monetary reform – a key bugbear for Baker – and trade. “I’m very interested in trade policy and I’d love to do that, but Liz [Truss] is doing a fantastic job,” he says.
Mark Francois comments: “Ministerial appointments are a matter for the prime minister and not me. But personally, I think Steve has more than earned a place at the Cabinet table.” Jenkyns adds: “I’m not somebody who makes these decisions, but he is a guy who’s very committed to the cause and was a very good minister. I’m sure he would be a very good minister again.”
Having rejected a ministerial role, Baker was once more appointed chair of the ERG. Along with Sir Bill Cash, Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Francois, he held a series of meetings in No 10 over the Withdrawal Agreement. “We were negotiating safeguards to go into domestic legislation and to be in policy later,” Baker says. Francois adds: “While they were negotiating with the EU, we were negotiating with them.” The quad was then able to recommend to the wider ERG group that they supported Johnson’s deal. Even ardent Brexiteers such as John Redwood followed suit.
Baker is someone who tried to reach across the political divide on Brexit. He was among those to put forward the Malthouse Compromise, a much-maligned proposal that was the brainchild of Baker, Kit Malthouse, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nicky Morgan, Damian Green and others. “Of course, it was derided but it has actually succeeded. We’ve done it. The deal, if somebody gets the paperwork out, they’ll see it’s not far off the Malthouse Compromise.”
If I showed Baker the Brexit proposals on 24 June 2016, what would he think? “If you showed me the political declaration on the future relationship I’d say, ‘Yep, that’s ideal’,” he replies. The Withdrawal Agreement has proved more troublesome, but the ERG have compromised, he says. It “presents us with a tolerable path to a fantastic future” he adds.
Baker and other Eurosceptics have received their fair share of abuse. Their stances have left some residual ill-feeling among colleagues too. “Still now I go in the tea room and usually you go to start a new table if the tables are full, and people avoid sitting next to me,” says Jenkyns. However, many of the new intake of Conservative MPs have greeted the Brexiteers with reverence. “It’s very, very humbling when a real Member of Parliament, a genuine actual Member of Parliament knows who I am, shakes hands and says, ‘Thank you for what you did’,” Baker says.
So, what next for the ERG? The group continues to meet and has had several new subscribers join its ranks. As the Government undertakes negotiations on new trade deals, Baker wants the organisation to take a back seat. “I do not want groups of backbench MPs, of any persuasion, intervening in the Government’s negotiations – it’s not helpful and shouldn’t happen,” he says. “I would like to go back to the status quo anti-bellum, where the thing is there, it does what it is supposed to do which is to collectively employ a researcher to assist colleagues in their parliamentary duties, and nobody is talking about the ERG.”
But what if the UK government asks for an extension to the transition period. Could that awake the sleeping beast? “I’m not committing to that at all, no,” says Baker. “Boris Johnson is a true believer in doing this right and I believe that Boris Johnson genuinely wishes to deliver what’s in the manifesto, and that’s why I backed him.”
In previous conversations with me, Baker has referred to Brexit as a “struggle”. It seems this particular struggle has taken its toll on Baker, who is more circumspect than triumphalist. But with Brexit night approaching, he will succumb to enjoying the moment. “I will allow myself a smile and a glass of champagne on the moment we cease to be a member state, yes. I think I’m under a duty to enjoy myself that evening.”
Those who know him say Baker’s interests lie well beyond the European issue, and he wishes it did not fall upon his generation to ensure Brexit took place. “I suppose a combination of serendipity and our constitution functioning has meant that the public, in the end, have got what they wanted. But it’s one of those things I wouldn’t have done this way,” he says.
To those who know him, Baker is unlike his persona in the media. “He is definitely a man of detail. I’ve noticed that he’s a Gemini, I’m a Gemini – I’m into my astrology – Boris is a Gemini, Trump is a Gemini, Jacob is a Gemini, I think it’s an outspoken trait actually. I’ve gelled with him and I think we’ve got mutual respect for each other,” says Jenkyns. Francois says: “He is fun to work with. He’s also got quite a dry sense of humour, so meetings are good fun. He’s efficient and if he says something is done, you know it’s done. I like people like that.”
This year, Baker plans to do many more skydives. When he hurls himself out of a plane, he “intensely experiences life”. “It’s a love of life. When you’re on a drop zone and you’re with other skydivers, people are very relaxed, I’m a much more relaxed person on a drop zone.”
But as the dust settles, and politics returns to normal, won’t he miss dabbling in something more politically dangerous? “No,” he says. “It’s been too awful. I just want to get on with normal politics that is relatively uncontroversial and serves all my constituents.”