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The ERG: a party within a party?

15 min read

The ERG has become synonymous with Conservative euroscepticism. The intrigue surrounding the organisation and its infamous WhatsApp group has led some to brand it a “party within a party”. But are these perceptions unfounded? Sebastian Whale speaks to leading ERG figures, the group’s founder and its Tory opponents to piece together the facts on arguably the most influential group of MPs in contemporary political history

Early on 3 June 1992, Michael Spicer awoke to the news that the Danish people had rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum by 50.7% to 49.3%. The Conservative MP sensed the gravity of the vote and its implications for European integration – all member states had to ratify the treaty for it to come into force.

Spicer immediately sprung into action. He put together an Early Day Motion (EDM) on the future development of the European Economic Community; which called for the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty to be postponed to enable a “fresh start” to be made to relations with Europe. The EDM received 110 signatures.

Out of that EDM sprang what was then known as the Fresh Start Group, which formed the basis of the rebellions on Maastricht that plagued Sir John Major’s premiership. Spicer, now Lord Spicer, credits its actions with preventing the UK signing up for the single currency. “That was its success at the time,” he tells me.

In 1994, after months of bitter rows that had engulfed the Conservative party, Spicer sat down with his fellow Fresh Start members to form a new group that was “slightly less militant and aggressive”. The product of this was the European Research Group, with Spicer as its chair. Daniel Hannan – now an MEP and one of the party’s most influential eurosceptic thinkers – was one of its earliest researchers.

The ERG, which aimed to promote coordination of eurosceptic thought across Europe, met every week. “That group became the focal point of any discussion in the party on Europe but in quite a civilised way,” Spicer says.

In 2016, and under the chairmanship of Steve Baker, the group reformed following the vote to leave the European Union. Against the backdrop of the Brexit negotiations, the ERG has risen to prominence. Three former chairs have gone on to become ministers in the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). Its current head, Jacob Rees-Mogg, enjoys a reputation as the unofficial spokesperson for the party’s hard Brexiteers.

While the body exists to provide research services to its subscribers, the ERG has become synonymous with Conservative euroscepticism. The activities in its infamous WhatsApp group and the lobbying efforts of some of its senior members have created an air of mystique that has captured Westminster’s imagination. Its opposition to the Prime Minister’s Chequers proposal has given the ERG a new lease of life – where it once existed to support the government’s Brexit policy, it now aims to steer it back on course.

With this new credo have come controversies, most recently with members of the ERG openly discussing how to oust Theresa May. One Tory MP tells me the ERG has become a “party within a party”. Others have branded it the Tory-equivalent of the pro-Jeremy Corbyn grassroots movement, Momentum.

But is that a fair characterisation? For eurosceptic MPs, it is one that is starting to wear thin. “I’m so fed up with people’s nonsense that they’re talking about the ERG,” a frustrated Baker tells me over a coffee in Portcullis House.

“Now, on the one hand, this has come back on me because I deliberately set it up to have some mystique about it. Even not changing the name, I knew that calling it the ERG – which sounds very technical – would create mystique. If we called it the Fresh Start Group II or something… I knew that we would create interest. But, we have reached a point now where people’s hysterics are just silly.”

Another senior ERG member says: “People have constantly tried to suggest that there’s something sinister about the ERG, something illegal. It’s just ridiculous. We are a research organisation. Obviously MPs campaign for all sorts of things. But the ERG as an organisation; we don’t have a website, we don’t have a Twitter account. The ERG has become a brand, but it is a research organisation. That is what we do.”

In recent weeks, the ERG has produced research setting out solutions to sticking points in the Brexit negotiations. Its members presented a paper outlining a proposal to the vexed issue of the Northern Ireland border. The group has coalesced around its opposition to Theresa May’s Chequers proposal – and is calling for a Canada-style free trade agreement with the European Union.

But the ERG was not always as combative. Under former chair Chris Heaton-Harris, the group stayed neutral during the referendum. It was under Baker that it took on a new lease of life – using public letters and research to enhance its cause.

On becoming chair, Baker set about revitalising the ERG. He established connections with “external sources of advice” that could help further the cause of exiting the EU “successfully”. He created a steering committee, comprised of people who help shape the “tectonic plates” of opinion, which is chaired by Tory MP Bernard Jenkin. Members of the committee, which include ex-ministers Nigel Lawson, Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson, Theresa Villiers and Priti Patel, meet on Mondays in Iain Duncan Smith’s parliamentary office. Some of the ERG’s officers who coordinate the administration of the group (another Baker creation) also attend.

“A lot of the research is commissioned by the steering committee,” Jenkin tells me. “It’s a deliberative group. There’s no hierarchy to it; when I say I chair it, I literally just chair it. What has been remarkable is how open and free the discussion is. Obviously, there are areas of disagreement and people have different views on very different things. But what is remarkable is how cohesive the group has remained.

“Up until Chequers – we were a little frayed at the edges – but basically our mission was to support the government. Since Chequers, we were in shock for a few days frankly that the Downing Street machine seemed to turn on the eurosceptics. Then we had the resignations. Then our project over the summer has been to encourage work to be produced that shows there is a coherent alternative.”

Baker appointed two officers that voted Remain in the referendum, John Penrose and Charlie Elphicke. Others included Brexiteers Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Craig Mackinlay and Suella Braverman. Jacob Rees-Mogg, who succeeded Braverman as chair of the ERG, was vice chairman and Michael Tomlinson deputy chairman.

“So, it was a broad spectrum of people resolved to support government policy and then we went on from there and increased the amount of work we were doing to help colleagues support government policy as it was,” says Baker.

Baker says he made a “sincere attempt to reach out and build bridges across the divide” after taking on the chairmanship. “But because of the severity of people’s recoil against the result, I’m afraid it has not been – I don’t think I could claim it has been as successful as I would have liked in building bridges.”

The ERG has members and subscribers; the former can join the WhatsApp group and express views at the weekly Tuesday evening meetings. But only the latter can commission research on matters relating to the European Union (though MPs often share research). Subscribers have included past and present Cabinet ministers from both sides of the Brexit divide, including Sajid Javid and Penny Mordaunt. According to BBC research, 45 MPs have allocated a small portion of their office allowances to cover the costs of the group’s researcher in recent years, as per rules set out by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).

The size of the ERG membership is thought to be around 60, though some believe it is much higher. Baker is confident that he has “nearly” 80 MPs prepared to vote down Chequers in the division lobbies. “There’s been some change around with the election, but over 130 colleagues were willing to campaign for Leave when that was a rebellion. So people ought not to have a political miscalculation,” he warns No10.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has a unique connection to the ERG. Not only has he known its founder for a number of years, his sister married former ERG researcher, Matthew Glanville. He prefers to refer to supporters as “sympathisers”, as there is not a membership structure. He suggests the ERG has lazily become used as an “umbrella term” for Tory Brexiteers. “That is just a convenient turn of phrase rather than reality because not all the eurosceptics in the House of Commons are acting members of the ERG. Very few of them are subscribers – the subscribers are quite a small number of people,” he says.

Peter Bone, the MP for Wellingborough and co-founder of Brexit group Grassroots Out, is one such eurosceptic who is not a member of the ERG. Why not? “I think the ERG started as a research thinktank some years ago and I was never involved with that and therefore have never been as such. When I did the referendum, I founded with Tom Pursglove the Grassroots Out organisation. I was never a part of the ERG for that reason.”

While he differs on emphasis (he wants Theresa May to threaten to leave on WTO terms to cajole the EU into signing a free trade agreement), he believes Tory eurosceptics largely sing off the same hymn sheet.

“I don’t think there’s any difference between any of the Leavers in the Conservative party. Boris will say something one way, David Davis will say something another way, Jacob as well. But we all want the same thing,” he says.

“What I think the mainstream media makes a mistake on is believing there is one coordinated plan. I don’t think it’s like that at all. The well-known people who believe in Leave all absolutely want the same thing – to come out of the EU. And I would say the vast bulk of them want to have the free trade deal if possible. But it’s not like everything is working to a coordinated plan. It’s just not how it is.”

But the perception is that the ERG has become the mobilising force for eurosceptics within the Conservative party. Baker says: “Without getting too carried away with our constitutional system, Members of Parliament are here with their own freedom of speech and action within parliament. They have their own opinions and obviously, it’s important that people should come together to support the government’s policy.”

Baker, whose role as the linchpin in coordinating backbench rebellions on Brexit have been vividly captured in two books by political journalist Tim Shipman, recognises his reputation as the organiser.

“Anyone’s who’s read Shipman’s books, apart from any others, will know that I do a lot of work to marshal colleagues when they do have a shared view including in the division lobbies,” he says. “I’m not going for a minute to deny that. But that is not to say that we’re – all of us – able to take a collective view.”

The perception for some on the Tory benches, however, is markedly different. One pro-Remain MP says the ERG acts contrary to Conservative ideals by placing their Brexit beliefs “above everything else”.

“The ERG – it’s a caucus with an ideology, which is not very conservative,” they say. “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.”

Others have questioned the pretence of the ERG being primarily a research-based group. In September, reports emerged of members openly discussing how to oust May from No10. The ERG’s main figures – Rees-Mogg, Baker and co – were quick to distance themselves and the ERG from the chatter.

Rees-Mogg says: “There’s no great mystique; we have meetings and discuss the latest European issues. I wasn’t at the meeting last week when it got slightly off the main subject, but I was there the week before when we had [Conservative MEP] David Campbell Bannerman over from the European Parliament giving a talk on his proposals for free trade. He went through his paper, which is genuinely what a research group would do.”

Like other parliamentary groups, including the Parliamentary Research Unit that all Tory MPs can subscribe to, MPs can allocate a small portion of their office allowances to cover the costs of the ERG’s researcher. In recent days, however, pro-EU campaigners have seized on reports that the ERG also has a second bank account.

Rees-Mogg explains: “One is for IPSA money, one is for non-IPSA money. The non-IPSA money has been donated for us to pay for breakfast when members can have discussions with the Europe minister, while we’re dealing with the German Ambassador. Quite rightly the taxpayer doesn’t pay for us to have breakfast.”

He adds: “The research is publicly-funded, but everything else isn’t and we’ve always been very careful to differentiate and make sure anything that isn’t justifiably a public and parliamentary expense is dealt with separately.”

Last month, IPSA censured the ERG for using taxpayers’ money for what it deemed to be party political activity. In an email, IPSA said the contents of a research note produced by the ERG amounted to a critique of the Labour party.

One Tory MP believes the ERG has morphed into a campaigning group while masquerading as a research body: “There is very definitely an ERG collective line which its MPs are expected to support. You sign up on that basis. I’m sure some ERG members, like everybody else, would agree with more of the programme than other parts of it, but it is not a research group. I think that’s why it’s being reported to IPSA and everything else because it is not just a research body.”

On accusations that the ERG is a party within a party, Jenkin declares: “The reason why the ERG is so influential, is not because we are hijacking the party, it’s because we represent an intellectual strand of the party that is very mainstream. And also, may I just point out, represents how the nation voted in the referendum.

“So, the idea that we’re some extreme tiny minority is just a parody. Obviously, if you don’t represent the establishment, you don’t represent the vested interests, you don’t represent the orthodox 60 years of inherited thinking about the European Union that has driven government policy, we are challenging that from outside.

“But in terms of who we represent, we represent the majority of Conservative party members, probably a majority of [Tory] MPs, certainly the Brexit majority of the country.”

No10’s strategy for dealing with the ERG has only enhanced the intrigue. Three former chairs – Baker, Braverman and Heaton-Harris – have gone on to become DExEU ministers (Baker resigned over Chequers). A senior ERG official tells me Downing Street has tried to “buy off” senior Brexiteers by offering them ministerial office.

Does Rees-Mogg agree? “Governments construct cabinets very carefully and ministerial office more broadly very carefully for a wide range of reasons. But yes of course, part of the reason is to keep the coalition of the Conservative party happy.”

When does he expect to be appointed? Rees-Mogg chuckles. “I don’t think I’ll be getting the call. I think the call is often in the hope of keeping people quiet, and I’m not so keen on keeping quiet.”

For a group who often criticise Brussels for a lack of democratic accountability, the manner in which the ERG elects its chairs is curious. When Braverman entered the government earlier this year, the group needed to replace her as chair. As she resigned “out of season” (subscribers usually elect chairs), Rees-Mogg’s fellow officers asked him to take on the role, which he duly accepted. “There wasn’t a huge degree of competition, I don’t think anybody else wanted to do it,” he adds.

With the UK set to leave the EU on 29 March 2019, will the ERG cease to exist after we depart?

“If Chequers goes through then there will continue to be a need for the ERG, there will continue to be a need for the ERG in the implementation period, but if we’ve left the European Union altogether, the ERG might morph into something different,” Rees-Mogg says.

“The key to the formal part of the ERG is that it’s parliamentary. If we left the EU completely and there aren’t residual debates and laws coming through from the EU, then there wouldn’t be any parliamentary work related to it.”

Is his hope that the ERG becomes obsolete? “Oh, I’d be delighted. Putting myself out of a job would be a sign of success.”

The ERG will play a pivotal role as the Brexit negotiations enter the final phase. And given the air of mystique about the ERG, preconceptions about the group’s purpose are likely to persist in the media.

Is there anything Rees-Mogg can say to assuage those who might feel concerned about the ERG’s motives?

“It’s very funny really because people who aren’t keen on the ERG will decipher us to be this very strong organisation that’s doing all sorts of things which we’re not. I slightly feel if only it were true,” he says.

“If only the ERG were as powerful as we’re made out to be we wouldn’t be muddling along with Chequers in the way that we are. The reality and the spin by people who are not in favour is not quite the same. But actually, the way they spin it makes us seem stronger than we are. It’s slightly Wizard of Oz territory.”

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