As Prime Minister Theresa May has frantically attempted to craft a majority in the House of Commons for her withdrawal agreement deal, the European Research Group (ERG) has played a key role.
The ERG can only be described as a somewhat shadowy group, as it has no definitive list of members and lacks a formal role within Parliament or any party. It’s believed to have been started in 1992 with its first chair Michael, now Lord, Spicer, a Conservative MP who consistently opposed the UK’s signing up to the Maastricht Treaty. Maastricht established the fundamental pillars of the EU as we know it today. The UK eventually signed up, although not without massive Tory infighting first.
The ERG was born then in the fire and brimstone of Conservative divisions over the UK’s relationship with its closest European neighbours – to borrow a phrase from Ms May, ‘nothing has changed’! Its membership consists almost entirely of Conservative MPs, almost entirely backbenchers, who can’t stop ‘banging on about Europe’, to borrow a phrase from former Prime Minister David Cameron. Precisely who was a member of the group was almost entirely unknown until 2010. MPs were then for the first time required to provide the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) with full details of their expenses. Some ERG member MPs set aside a small proportion of their taxpayer-funded office allowances to fund the group, including for a researcher to publish private briefing notes. Use of such funds is supposed to be for non-partisan, objective research only which some have questioned whether the ERG fulfills, but IPSA has said while unusual, the ERG does merit the allowance as its briefing notes are ‘not emotively phrased’.
Regardless, the expenses accounts confirm at least 53 MPs to have at one time been an ERG member. Surprisingly, considering the ERG’s hardline Brexit negotiations stance, this list includes a mixture of remain and leave-supporting MPs, including current Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who campaigned for Remain. The ERG is consequently less a Leave supporters’ club and more a home for Conservative MPs on a wide spectrum of euroscepticism. While expenses filed to IPSA provide definite evidence of membership of the group, ERG-penned open letters indicate its wider membership or simply just influence within the Conservative Party. For example, a letter written to Theresa May in February 2018 urging her to stick to her Lancaster House speech Brexit plans for the UK and to not be part of the single market or customs union with the EU, had 62 signatories.
Some basic principles help explain the ERG’s stance during Brexit. Freedom of the individual and open international trade are what members aspire to. A distrust of government, particularly supranational government (the likes of the EU and UN), and as David McCay described it in Prospect in January, a chauvinistic view of the superiority of the UK and the British political system in comparison to continental Europe, are also core beliefs.
Based on these principles, the ERG, chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg since the early part of last year, has been for the most part since 2016 a thorn in the government’s side, pushing for a harder, more ideologically pure version of Brexit. This pursuit of a “Holy Brexit” if you like, envisions a complete break from the EU, with the exception of a free trade deal. Back in September a number of prominent ERG members published a paper on solving the Irish border issue without a backstop, as well as talking up the benefits of no deal. Hailing a report by pro-Brexit pressure group Economists for Free Trade which claimed that the UK would be £1 trillion better off under no deal after 15 years than staying within the EU, prominent Brexiteer MPs like Rees-Mogg and former Brexit Secretary David Davis lined up to say if the UK’s requirements could not be met in negotiations, walking away was perfectly feasible. Most economists have rejected the Economists for Free Trade report, while the ERG’s paper on how to solve a problem like the Irish border received a great deal of criticism for lacking much substance. The paper advocated for both a 20km buffer zone either side of the border for agricultural checks and for technological solutions to maintain a soft border, including computer-based customs clearing. Unfortunately for the ERG, the European Commission has rejected the buffer zone idea, while a computer-based customs declarations system isn’t thought realistic for the small businesses which cross the border on a regular basis.
Theresa May’s victory in the party vote of no confidence in December was also bad news for the ERG whose most prominent members had called for it, with party rules meaning May cannot be challenged again until December 2019. Rees-Mogg, never one to criticise others for perceived failings to respect the result of a vote, tried initially after the no confidence outcome to argue that May’s position was still untenable and she had to resign, but this failed too.
Despite these setbacks, the ERG’s persistence has undoubtedly influenced the shape of Brexit with a big victory for ERG members at the end of January when the government accepted a parliamentary amendment to seek ‘alternative arrangements’ to the backstop in early February. For any future successor to May, you discount the influence and reach of the ERG at your peril.