As the worst ever series of Britain’s Got (Political) Talent plays out on our screens with its underwhelming cast of memory-challenged hopefuls, it is both depressing and illuminating to realise that the judge with arguably the most clout is the monomaniacal, murky ERG.
Depressing because this does not bode well for the UK’s chances of exiting the endless Brexit impasse that is strangling the economy and sucking all of the air out of the political atmosphere.
The members of the European Research Group – who are, in fact, anti-European, often hostile to experts and not even a formal group as such – were still choosing who to endorse on Wednesday but arguably more important than their decision is the way their Brexit obsession has shaped the leadership debate, and by extension, Conservative party priorities and the direction of the next government.
With one eye on the ERG, all the born-again Tory candidates know what is permissible, what is sayable, what can be on the table and what must not be mentioned. According to newspaper reports, the ERG has been interviewing the contenders, quizzing them on their stance on Brexit and other issues.
Ever-ready Rishi Sunak took umbrage at some of the questions during his session, with the Daily Express headlining its report: ‘Huffy’ Sunak storms out of high-stakes ERG meeting as he scuppers ‘audition’.
And although there is talk of a rift within the ERG – newspapers are reporting that chairman Mark Francois is backing Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, while his deputy David Jones favours Attorney General Suella Braverman – these individual endorsements are in any case less significant than how this diehard faction has managed to mould the whole Tory party in its image.
With a membership of somewhere between 60 and 100 MPs, the ERG officially brings together eurosceptic Tory MPs and ostensibly provides research around Brexit, paid for with taxpayers’ money. At least three of the original leadership candidates – Braverman, junior trade minister Penny Mordaunt and former health minister Sajid Javid – were members and Braverman also chaired the group.
Within the ERG, there is an even smaller unit, the so-called Spartans, who voted on three occasions in 2019 against Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Last September, the Telegraph reported on their Covid-delayed celebration dinner at the Carlton Club. A photograph was taken of the group on the stairs: the women wore green scarves, the men green ties and cufflinks, all adorned with small gold Spartan helmets.
It’s easy to mock the image but there is a particularly dangerous single-minded steel behind those cheesy smiles.
Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank, says the ERG’s strength lies partly in the fact that it is highly organised and has numerical strength even if nobody seems quite sure how many members it has. (Menon reckons around 100). And then there is the fact that these self-styled “ultimate arbiters of Brexit purity” will do anything for the cause.
“The ERG are influential because they’ve proven time and time again that they mean it, that is to say they are obviously willing to burn the house down if they don’t get what they want,” Menon said, noting that when May was prime minister, it was the ERG – some of the most right-wing people in her own party – who were most willing to risk a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn if May didn’t bow to their demands over her Brexit deal. He describes them as “nihilistic”.
And even though one might argue the ERG got what they wanted then – forcing May out of office – they do not believe the job is yet done despite the oven-ready deal secured by May’s successor Boris Johnson in 2020.
“The agenda was not just to leave the EU. The agenda was to leave the EU in such a way as to give the British government maximum space to do what it wants. And in such a way as to completely remove any authority or influence the EU might have,” Menon said.
That agenda is now influencing the leadership race. Writing in the Daily Express last week, ERG chairman Francois raised the red flag over former Tory deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine’s comment that “If Boris goes, Brexit goes”.
“That’s why it’s critical that whoever the Conservative Party picks as its new Leader, it is someone who really believes in Brexit, in their heart of hearts and does not just mouth the words to try to win the contest,” Francois wrote. “Only someone who approves of Brexit, as a core belief, is unlikely to bow to any amount of brow-beating by the European Union, be it over the Northern Ireland Protocol (which must be addressed, to uphold the Good Friday Agreement) or fishing rights, or indeed anything else.”
And he threw down the gauntlet for what arguably should be the real battle in the Conservative party.
“If Heseltine and his Europhile mates think they can simply “take back control” of the Conservative Party, under the guise of a leadership contest, I suspect they will be sorely mistaken.”
Chris Grey, emeritus professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, and creator of the Brexit & Beyond blog, says the ERG never really trusted Johnson, seeing him as essentially opportunistic and “not one of them”. The group believes there is still a lot of unfinished business around Brexit and they will brook no criticism that could in any way dilute their vision.
“These (leadership) candidates are all putting forward their tax-and-spend proposals but we know that the economic damage from Brexit is not just something that is speculation. It is in government figures. To talk as if that doesn’t exist, or is irrelevant means there is a huge elephant in the room,” Grey said.
“Acknowledging that there is damage and that there will continue to be damage, that is unsayable. It’s difficult to think of any other policy area where you aren’t allowed to talk about it and it’s particularly weird in view of the culture war aspect of some of the candidates’ platforms: they bemoan the fact that they can’t say the truth. But the ultimate political correctness of the Tory party is that you mustn’t use the B word with any negative connotations. That will get you cancelled as a candidate for the leadership. That will cancel you for good.”
Menon says the ERG has shifted the Tory party’s centre of gravity towards having a confrontational attitude with the EU and going ahead with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, and those positions will be reflected in the leadership race.
“I tend to think whoever wins you’re not going to see much in the way of a change of tone when it comes to how we deal with the EU,” he said, although he did note that a candidate might soften their positions when they secured victory.
For Grey, the first thing a new leader will have to deal with will be the Protocol Bill, which would give ministers the power to scrap parts of the post-Brexit deal between the UK and the EU. It is currently making its way through the committee stage in the House of Commons.
If an ERG-endorsed candidate were to win the leadership race, it could be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ because once in power, they would have to deal in realities rather than ideologies and in the past, their members have tended to walk away when tough choices had to be made.
“If the new leader is not minded to push to the limit on the Protocol that could be the moment when perhaps they finally face down the ERG and this has never happened before. The history of the ERG is that they make more and more demands of successive Tory leaders and always harden the demands before, in the end, turning on the leaders,” Grey said.
If a new leader declines to push through the Protocol Bill to avoid a potential trade war or at the very least EU sanctions, the ERG could turn again, levelling charges of “remainer” against the new prime minister, even if he/she is one of their own, Grey says.
“All of this dynamic doesn’t go away. It doesn’t go away for any of the candidates but it’s particularly interesting in relation to the very committed Brexiteers,” he said.
One thing that could derail this endless Tory psychodrama would be if the economic damage being done by Brexit snowballs to the point where the Tory’s traditional voters no longer believe it is because Brexit is being done badly but start to wonder if the issue isn’t actually
Brexit itself. That could offer the Brexit-shy Labour party an opportunity, Menon says.
“If the Labour party is able to make that case noisily and effectively, it is conceivable that people might start looking to them. I’m not saying it’s definite but it’s conceivable.”
Some (cold) comfort perhaps for the millions of Britons stuck watching the Tory talentless show play out as they struggle with higher prices and poorer services, or the local authorities waiting to be levelled up, or the businesses driven to distraction and even to the wall by the red tape of the ERG’s true-blue Brexit.