Suella Fernandes, ERG chair, being interviewed by Channel 4 News - fair use.
Six leading members of Theresa May’s cabinet are paid-up subscribers of the secretive European Research Group, the hard-line anti-EU caucus of Conservative MPs who have serially refused to publish their membership list.
New data collected by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority covering the last year, show that the six cabinet members, along with the chief of staff and special adviser to the Brexit secretary, David Davis have each claimed £2,000 in parliamentary expenses for “professional” and “pooled” services from the ERG. Five other subscriptions from former Tory cabinet ministers and whips, plus the current chair of the ERG, means this group alone have claimed more than £32,000 from the public purse.
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, Penny Mordaunt, the newly-promoted defence secretary, David Gauke, the work and pensions secretary, Sajid Javid, the communities and local government secretary, Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons, and Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, have all used official expenses claims to pay for “ERG subscriptions” over the last 12 months.
Stewart Jackson, who lost his Peterborough seat in June’s general election, and is now chief of staff to David Davis at the Department for Exiting the European Union, also used his official expenses to pay for ERG services during the last years.
In September this year, during a live television interview from the lobby in Westminster on the back of an openDemocracy investigation into the group, the current chair of the ERG, Suella Fernandes, refused to say which ministers were members of her organisation.
The ERG’s membership is routinely rumoured to be around 80 MPs, with Eurosceptic cabinet ministers having previously signed up to letters that effectively mirror ERG objectives.
However, today’s revelation shows the group’s paid-up subscribers reach deep into the core of Theresa May’s administration, and have been seen as deeply worrying.
One senior Whitehall official, who asked not to be named because he was currently involved in preparations for the next phase of talks with the EU’s negotiators, told openDemocracy: “2018 will be a difficult and critical year and those from Brussels we have to engage with, have already voiced concern that our future position could be clearer. But there will be added suspicion that this secretive group – and if they won’t publish who their members are and what they do, then secret is the correct word – represents a hidden hurdle by Brussels that the UK government has to jump over. This will hinder, not help, the prospects of a deal.”
Other data collated by IPSA show that 58 MPs have recently used taxpayers’ money to fund the ERG’s activities. Among the leading Brexiteers who have paid for ERG subscriptions over the course of the last two parliaments include Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is still being touted as a future Tory leader should May be forced out of 10 Downing Street.
The group is often described as a party-within-a-party of hardline Brexiteers capable of holding the prime minister hostage or removing her from office if she deviates from their stated aim of severing all ties with the European Economic Area, the single market, the European Court and the Customs Union.
The re-invented ERG
The Brexit minister and Wycombe MP, Steve Baker, is regarded as the most powerful figure linked to the ERG. Baker was the head of the group before he was promoted into the government. Though it was founded in 1998, Baker is credited with turning the ERG from a backwater of low-profile Eurosceptic malcontents into a powerful organisation capable of deciding the terms and merits of any deal with Brussels.
He has described any move towards a soft Brexit or any retention of links with the EU as “a vote for the UK to be powerless and poorer than we can otherwise be.”
Although he now holds no formal role in the group, restricted meetings of ERG members in Westminster have been addressed by Baker since June, with his speeches enthusiastically applauded.
openDemocracy has previously revealed that Baker took a £6,500 donation from the Constitutional Research Council to pay for an ERG event before Christmas 2016. We have also revealed that the CRC chairman, Richard Cook, founded a company in 2013 with the former head of the Saudi intelligence service and a Danish spy implicated in a controversial Indian gun-running case. Our research has also shown that Baker has previously accepted cash and foreign travel from a wide-range of groups, including the arms industry, and a number of American pro-corporate lobby groups.
Fernandes, who only became an MP in the 2015 election, took over as chair of the ERG in June this year following Baker’s move to David Davis’s department. She has described negotiations with Brussels over the terms of Brexit as “begging the EU for mercy”. She has told ERG members in texts sent on a highly-protected WhatsApp messaging group, that they should not forget the referendum was an “instruction to parliament to free the UK from the shackles of Europe.”
Channel Four News
In her interview with Channel Four News – which followed an investigation by openDemocracy which discovered over a quarter of a million pounds of public funds had been channelled to the ERG through MPs expenses – Fernandes refused to say how many government ministers were in the ERG.
Told repeatedly by the Channel Four News presenter, Krishnan Guru-Murthy that if her group took public money then the public should have a right to know, Fernandes looked uneasy. Resorting to awkward laughing, and clearly unsettled she replied, “The list of MPs is known to the ERG.”
Both Channel Four News and openDemocracy have repeated requests to Fernandes’ office for a full list of the ERG membership, its research, and the cost of its publically funded operations. No list has been provided.
Following complaints by MPs that public cash was being misused by the ERG because it focused on a single-issue, Brexit, and operated as a party-political organisation, IPSA recently carried out an updated review of its claimed research.
IPSA identified “party-political language” in some of the material produced by the ERG. However it concluded that because the ERG had been in existence before the EU referendum, and because “the vast majority of material produced was factual, informative” and not in conflict with IPSA regulations, no action was being taken.
However IPSA would not comment on the ERG continuing to keep its membership lists private and largely out of public reach.
Francis Grove-White, Deputy Director of Open Britain, said:
“It is illuminating, and deeply worrying, to see who is really pulling the strings of the government’s hard Brexit trajectory.
“The ERG are in favour of the most destructive Brexit possible: they want to tear up all our economic co-operation with Europe in pursuit of a low-regulation, race-to-the-bottom agenda that most people in Britain do not support.
“If Ministers are claiming taxpayers’ money as allowances to pay for membership fees of this group, then the public have every right to know exactly who in the Government is a registered ERG member.
“The ERG should publish this information immediately. If they have nothing to hide, they will have no problem doing so. If they do not make this information public, people will draw their own conclusions.”
The ERG was contacted by openDemocracy and invited to comment on the subscriptions of cabinet members. No reply was received.