Steve Baker: from the ERG to Brexit department. Image: BBC, fair use.
Senior opposition MPs have called on the prime minister to launch “an immediate investigation” into a former Brexit minister for potential breaches of the ministerial code. They say Steve Baker should be investigated for using civil servants to organise secretive meetings with the European Research Group and for keeping a lead role with the influential group of hardline anti-EU Conservative MPs after becoming a minister.
An investigation by openDemocracy revealed how Baker continued to meet with and influence the ERG after he was appointed as a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union in 2017. The ERG, a group of ultra-eurosceptic Tories said to include as many as 80 MPs, has consistently pressured Theresa May to adopt a hard Brexit.
Now leading Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs responsible for Brexit policy have called on Number 10 to investigate Baker and the “dirty and secretive” games that are steering the UK towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
A Cabinet Office investigation previously examined Baker’s regular attendance at ERG meetings throughout his time as a minister. The probe, prompted by an openDemocracy investigation, accepted Baker’s explanation that he was merely attending the gatherings in his personal capacity as a constituency MP.
However, emails obtained by openDemocracy show Baker’s DExEU officials organising his attendance at an ERG meeting just weeks after he became a minister. He also offered the group private briefings on critical government policy. None of the meetings were officially listed, as transparency rules require.
Conservative party sources with knowledge of Baker’s relationship with the ERG said he had remained “their lightly-detached chief executive” while serving as a minister. The ministerial code prohibits MPs from “being associated with non-public organisations whose objectives may in any degree conflict with government policy”.
Misuse of ministerial position
John Trickett, Labour’s shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, told openDemocracy: “The revelation that Baker used civil servants to contact the ERG undermines his claim to have only interacted with this secretive group in a personal capacity.”
Trickett said Baker was using his ministerial position to “push an extreme free-trade agenda that is at odds with his own government’s policy and the great majority of the British public.”
Baker took over as chair of the ERG in 2016 and is credited with moulding it into the powerful group it is today. Though funded by taxpayers’ cash, the ERG refuses to make its membership list public. Current and former cabinet ministers are understood to be paid-up members.
Appointed a minister by Theresa May after the 2017 general election, Baker resigned on 9 July this year, the same day as his boss at DExEU, David Davis, also left. Baker said he was unable to back the compromises of the plan the prime minister had brokered at Chequers two days earlier. He later accused May of being involved in a “cloak and dagger” plot to foil Brexit and said Downing Street, not DExEU, had control over negotiations with Brussels.
Baker is on record stating that the EU needs to be “wholly torn down” and that it remains “an obstacle to free trade and peace”.
Worse than Game of Thrones
Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson, said the “dirty and secretive” games being played by the Tories in their “embittered civil war” made Game of Thrones look tame in comparison. However Brake said it was “no laughing matter” because the UK was “being pushed over a ‘no-deal’ Brexit cliff edge”.
Commenting on Baker’s links with the ERG, Brake told openDemocracy: “It would appear a now former minister broke the ministerial code while in office. The prime minister cannot ignore this. There should be an immediate investigation.”
Brake said Baker’s connections to the ERG while holding a senior role in a government department critical to the UK’s future relationship with the European Union “revealed the extent to which Theresa May’s government have been driven by this ragtag group of MPs. These politicians cannot be trusted.”
May’s fate as prime minister is often described as being in the hands of the ERG, now chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg. A hard-line Brexit policy paper, co-authored by Baker and Rees-Mogg, is to be published before the Conservative Party conference in early October. The blueprint is expected to be part of a wider assault on the Chequers deal, which will be painted as a sell-out keeping the UK shackled to Brussels’ rules.
The ERG’s votes in Parliament on any agreement with Brussels will be critical to the outcome and therefore to May’s immediate future.
Since his resignation, Baker has slotted back into a leadership role among his ERG colleagues. In a speech to the House of Commons shortly before the summer break, Baker used barely coded language to threaten May, saying there were 40-plus Brexiteers – a reference to the ERG – who would vote with the SNP and Labour to kill off the Chequers plan.
The effective deputy prime minister, David Liddington, said this week that if the Chequers compromise failed, the only option left was a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
PM held hostage
A former Labour cabinet minister, Ben Bradshaw, who is a leading supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, told openDemocracy: “These new revelations about Steve Baker highlight how the government, and by extension the country, are effectively being held hostage by a Brextremist minority within the Conservative Party.”
Bradshaw added: “Everyone else has to follow the rules, but Steve Baker and his merry band of Brexiteers march to the beat of their own drum. It is outrageous that our country may end up being forced to endure a destructive Brexit because of the ideological obsessions of a relatively small number of back-bench MPs operating in secrecy.”