STEVE ANGLESEY examines the odd link between Boris Johnson’s Brexit foot soldiers and James Blunt.
Given that he turned the story of a druggie pervert stalking women on the Tube into a best-selling soft-rock wedding favourite, it’s hardly a surprise to find James Blunt surveying the disfigured face of Brexit and declaring: “You’re beautiful, it’s true.”
“My call to arms would be ‘get the f*** on with it’, because our lives aren’t going to change,” Blunt told the Independent this week, declaring that he would continue to tour Europe whatever happens. “My tour manager is going to be pissed off if he has to fill in a few more forms, but whatever you do, get on with it, because the limbo is killing us,” he added.
No word yet on whether James’ tour manager can fill in a few more forms and sort out workers’ rights, frictionless free trade, environmental standards and the right to live and work in 27 European countries, but we live in hope. In the meantime, it’s worth considering the rather odd link between Blunt, who is undoubtedly dashing, talented and amusing, and Mark Francois, who is the deputy chairman of the European Research Group.
Blunt is famously a former soldier, which places him among the 5% of Britons who have served in the military. Some go on to Westminster; around 8% of MPs are veterans.
But of the ERG’s core of 75 officers and key supporters, nearly a quarter are former full-time or current part-time service people. They include Francois (Royal Anglian Regiment reserve, 1985-91) and the ERG’s publicity-shy chairman Steve Baker (RAF, 1989-1999), who told the group on the morning of Super Saturday that “the Withdrawal Agreement that is before us is undoubtedly deeply, deeply flawed and unattractive” before explaining why they should all vote for it.
They did not get the chance that day, thanks partly to ERG member John Baron (Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, 1984-87). The Basildon and Billericay MP accidentally rallied support for the Letwin amendment by telling the BBC how Michael Gove and Dominic Raab has given him “clear assurance” that the Withdrawal Agreement guaranteed Britain would leave on no-deal terms if no trade deal was achieved by December 2020.
The cat was very much out of the bag, the fight against the amendment was lost and one ERG colleague subsequently told the Sunday Times: “John Baron’s not the sharpest tool in the box. He’s just a tool.”
Like James Blunt, Baron went through officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. So did fellow ERGers Iain Duncan Smith (Scots Guards, 1975-81), Bob Stewart (Cheshire Regiment, 1969-96), Leo Docherty (Scots Guards, 2002-06) and Adam Holloway (Grenadier Guards, 1991-97).
Though not affiliated to the group, Brexit secretary Steve Barclay did a part of his pre-university gap year in training at Sandhurst before five months in the Fusiliers. James Cleverly, whose ERG ties have become looser since he was named Tory co-chairman, is still a lieutenant colonel in the Territorials.
Other big-name veterans tied to the ERG include naval reservist and paratrooper’s daughter Penny Mordaunt. David Davis was in the SAS reserves, while Andrew Bridgen began officer training with the Royal Marines but did not complete the course and returned to his family’s market-gardening business. Royston Smith (RAF, 1980-90), Desmond Swayne (Royal Armoured Corps Territorials, 1987-present), Bill Wiggin (Royal Welsh Fusiliers Territorials, length of service unknown) and Chris Green (Territorials, length of service unknown) complete the list.
None of this is intended to decry either military service or the records of ERG MPs who have served (Swayne may be a buffoon who dressed up in blackface but he has also served in Iraq; IDS may be wrong about everything and unpleasant with it but he served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles). And of course the Commons has Remainer veterans like Clive Lewis and soft Brexit veterans like Rory Stewart.
But it’s hard not to conclude that the military links of so many members have impacted on how the ERG sees the EU and Brexit.
There is a fine line between understandable national pride and an unfounded belief in British exceptionalism; between a desire for sovereignty and jingoism. It’s a line ERG members seem to cross with regularity – think of Francois’ dismal rhetoric (“my father never submitted to bullying by any German and neither will his son”, “herr Juncker in his bunker” etc), the talk of being taken over by stealth, the view of our neighbours as enemies to be beaten rather than partners to negotiate with.
Which makes it all the more worrying that Boris Johnson seems to have recruited these true believers as the footsoldiers of Brexit. And all the more bewildering that as long as it gets Brexit done, the ERG’s students of military history are willing to return Northern Ireland to a state described by the title of the James Blunt album which contains You’re Beautiful.. Back To Bedlam.
The strain is beginning to show on the stumbling Brexit secretary. In just a few days, he’s made the tasteless and tin-eared claim that the late Mo Mowlam would have wanted to get Brexit done, been forced to withdraw an untrue Commons suggestion that Labour had rejected a cut-and-pasted version of their own Brexit stance during cross-party talks, and admitted in committee that trade between Britain and Northern Ireland would be subject to new paperwork under the terms of Boris Johnson’s new deal, having assured the room minutes earlier that it would not.
Barclay also told the Commons, “We want to collude with the British people to respect the referendum result and get Brexit done” – thus revealing that while he’s perfectly adept at repeating meaningless catchphrases, he doesn’t actually know what “collude” means!
The Polish-born ERG member killed off one of Dominic Cummings’ recent ruses – that the likes of Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin and Hilary Benn should be investigated over their conversations with foreign powers – by tweeting that he had been doing “all I can” to convince the government of Poland to veto any Brexit extension, while “others [are] working on Czechs and Hungarians”.
Kawczynski defended himself in a car-crash interview with Sky News’ All Out Politics, in which he admitted that his efforts were likely to achieve nothing because “the problem we have is that the EU acts like a sort of cartel – a mafia cartel”.
Host Adam Boulton replied: “Democratic agreement around the table, that’s a mafia cartel, is it?” Clearly Daniel made the Poles an offer they could refuse…
Time to toast marshmallows on the bonfire of UKIP after chairman Kirstan Herriot wrote to inform members their amusingly-named leader had been suspended following an alleged “attempted theft of UKIP data which took place on Wednesday 16th October”. She went on to claim that Braine “attempted to gain access to our Head Office again yesterday morning… a police complaint regarding this incident has also taken place”. He denied any wrongdoing.
Herriot then shared a bleak assessment of the party’s situation by Neil Hamilton, which included the opinion that Braine’s predecessor as leader, Gerard Batten “has done for UKIP what Gerald Ratner did for his jewellery company”. Nevertheless, she concluded cheerily: “In the meantime, we are trying to organise a Brexit Celebration in Westminster on 31st October. We will provide more details shortly but do hope you’ll be able to join us!!”
More bad timing!