"The People Have Spoken." Photo: Avaaz. All rights reserved.
Taxpayers’ money is being used to fund an influential group of hard-line pro-Brexit Conservative MPs who are increasingly operating as a “party-within-a-party”, openDemocracy can reveal today.
Despite expenses rules stating that MPs cannot claim for research or work “done for, or on behalf of, a political party”, the European Research Group has received over a quarter of a million pounds from MPs who claimed the public cash through their official expenses.
The ERG, according to its current chair, MP Suella Fernandes, exists to ensure that Brexit will not be rendered “meaningless”. The group, regarded as an 80-strong private Tory caucus, wants Britain out of the EU single market and customs union. Its previous head, Steve Baker, now a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, said his group aimed to end EU’s “despotism” and give Britain back its borders.
Forty MPs have paid money to the ERG and claimed it back as ‘research’ over the period covering the David Cameron and Theresa May governments. These include current ministers and members of May’s cabinet.
But the true number could be higher. Other MPs regarded as ERG members have claimed expenses for “research services” on European issues without specifying the ERG.
According to a Whitehall analyst who has reviewed MPs’ expense statements for openDemocracy, the amount of taxpayers’ money received by the ERG is likely to be well above the officially listed quarter of a million pounds.
Anna Soubry, who served as a minister under David Cameron, and who has been critical of Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, told openDemocracy that while MPs legally used collective research services: “The ERG operates like a party within a party”. She added she was “surprised that it’s [ERG] being funded by taxpayers especially as it is a single issue organisation and would be of little use to a Conservative MP who doesn’t support their views.”
Ms Soubry said the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) should investigate the ERG payments to ensure taxpayers money “was being spent responsibly.”
Andrea Leadsom, the former Tory leadership contender who is currently Leader of the Commons, has claimed almost £10,000 for ERG research. Sajid Javid has listed £8000 for ERG work. Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, has claimed almost £8000, and the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, £2000. All are high profile cabinet figures who have voiced clear support in favour of the UK making a clean break with the EU.
The office of backbench MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, currently being touted as a future leader of the Conservative Party, confirmed he was a member of the ERG. His staff insisted he had claimed no money through his expenses for the group. However his filed accounts state he claimed almost £10,000 for ERG research.
openDemocracy repeatedly requested an official list of members of the ERG from Suella Fernandes. The former barrister has only been an MP since 2015 and took over as chair of the ERG from Steve Baker following his ministerial promotion in June this year. Although her office insisted the list was “not a state secret” it would not reveal any details of the group.
Despite Ms Fernandes’ leading role, her office said all matters relating to the group had to go through Christopher Howarth. He holds the basic title of “senior researcher” of the ERG.
One of Ms Fernandes staff said Mr Howarth effectively ran the group from a separate Westminster office. “Christopher holds all the information. Only he can help. That is often a problem for us, especially if he is on holiday,” she said.
“Their own whipping operation”
Christopher Howarth worked for the MP Mark Francois when he was shadow Europe minister, and for Baker when he chaired the ERG. Baker, now a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, has also received money from the secretive Constitutional Research Council: the same outfit that channeled £435,000 of ‘dark money’ to the DUP to campaign for Brexit.
Baker is regarded by both front and backbench Tory eurosceptics as a key figure capable of using the influence of the ERG to ensure a hard Brexit is not watered down or compromised. His ministerial promotion by May was seen as necessary if she wanted to survive as prime minister after the debacle of the general election.
The government’s continuing position on a hard Brexit without compromise in negotiations with Brussels is said to reflect fear that if there is any softening, the ERG will immediately move to oust May from 10 Downing Street.
Tory MPs who spoke to openDemocracy on a strictly non-attributable basis, described ERG members as engaged in “their own whipping operation”, using a closely-guarded WhatsApp messaging network, and sticking rigidly to the ERG’s agreed policy-line on any matters relating to Brexit. One MP said “Their private newsletter is not a subject for discussion, it is a directive to be obeyed.”
No MP contacted by openDemocracy contradicted the notion of the ERG as a party-within-a-party, with many saying it had been transformed under Baker’s command.
In June this year Christopher Howarth helped organise a meeting of ERG MPs in a Commons committee room. Two ministers, one from Davis’ Brexit department, the other from Liam Fox’s international trade department, gave the gathered MPs assurances that Brexit still meant the UK being outside the customs union and the single market, with UK law returning to supremacy. Baker described the gathering as “hugely encouraging.”
The meeting coincided with confirmation that Steve Baker, then chair of the ERG, would be joining the government as a minister.
“Running his own operation”
There is more than some confusion – even among senior Tory MPs – over who exactly the ERG’s “senior researcher” Christopher Howarth now works for, and in what capacity.
In August, the name “Christopher Howarth” is listed twice in the official Register of Interests of Members’ Secretaries and Research Assistants as working for the MP Steve Baker and Nick Herbert, a former Home Office and Justice minister in David Cameron’s coalition government.
Baker’s office referred questions on the ERG to Suella Fernandes. The Christopher Howarth who works for Nick Herbert has no connection with the ERG.
Howarth, the ERG’s senior researcher, is also officially listed by the Sergeant-at-Arms office, responsible for the security and administration of the Commons, as working for Chris Heaton-Harris. The Daventry MP was chair of the ERG between 2010 and 2015 before Baker.
Heaton-Harris’s office was also contacted by openDemocracy. They said Howarth did not work there, that they had no formal connection with him, that he had no desk in their office, and that Howarth had his own office elsewhere on the Westminster estate.
Other Tory MPs said they believed Howarth had no connection with any one MP and effectively “ran his own operation from his own office.”
The Sergeant at Arms office said that researchers who held passes to the Palace of Westminster had to be employed by an MP whether backbench or at ministerial level. The Sergeant’s office said that researchers employed as staff by a think-tank or outside pressure group were not permitted to have their own office on the parliamentary estate or to enjoy independent access to the Palace of Westminster.
Although Howarth has his own phone extension inside the parliamentary estate, the main Westminster switchboard do not have his name listed anywhere.
openDemocracy repeatedly contacted both Mr Howarth and Ms Fernandes asking who employed him, where his office in the Palace of Westminster was, what research he had carried out, and how much he was being paid by the ERG.
The questions were acknowledged but no information was received.
“Amusing but entirely fanciful”
Earlier this year the ERG’s former chair Steve Baker, after being promoted to a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, confirmed he had accepted £6,500 from the Constitutional Research Council in 2016. He claimed the money was used to fund an event for ERG members and their staff in late December 2016.
Under pressure from openDemocracy, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 MPs now prop up Theresa May’s minority government, reluctantly acknowledged it received a £435,000 donation from the CRC in the run up to the Brexit referendum last year – more cash than they had ever spent on a political campaign in their history. Both the DUP and Richard Cook, a Scottish Tory who runs the CRC, have repeatedly refused to reveal where the funds came from.
The money was not used by the DUP solely in Northern Ireland, but instead was used to buy pro-Brexit advertising across the UK. Under Northern Ireland’s limited transparency rules, the DUP are not required to reveal full details of their funding.
The CRC do not publish any accounts and have refused to reveal details of their political affairs. After Baker confirmed the donation from the CRC he was asked if he knew where the money had come from and the identity of those donating funds to Cook’s group. The Department for Exiting the European Union referred all enquiries to Christopher Howarth.
In a brief reply this week, Howarth described the ERG link to the CRC as “amusing but entirely fanciful”. He repeated the explanation that the £6,500 had been from a “permissible donor.”
James McGrory, Executive Director of Open Britain, the cross-party campaign group who believe the government’s Brexit strategy is destructive and chaotic, said: “It will surprise many people to learn that their taxes are being used to fund a group of hard-line Brextremists operating as a ‘party within a party’ in the Conservatives. IPSA should investigate this quickly and thoroughly to judge whether this is the legitimate use of public funds its members claim it is.”
He added : “Given they are hoovering up hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ cash, the ERG should also be a lot more transparent about who its members are and what the money is being spent on.”
Note: This article was changed to reflect the fact that the Christopher Howarth who works for Nick Herbert is a different person from the Christopher Howarth who works for the ERG.