Brexit Minister Steve Baker at an annual 'weighing in' ceremony in High Wycombe, 2013. Image: Steve Baker (CC-BY-2.0)
The Cabinet Secretary has been asked to investigate the conduct of Brexit minister, Steve Baker, after an openDemocracy investigation revealed that he had undisclosed meetings with the European Research Group, an influential group of Conservative MPs who want a hard, no-deal exit from the European Union.
Baker, an arch Brexiteer, was chair of the ERG before being promoted last year into David Davis’s Department for Exiting the European Union. But the Tory minister continues to play a leading role in the ERG, attending private meetings of the anti-EU group in Westminster and corresponding regularly with ERG members, including current chairman, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
In contravention of ministerial rules, none of these meetings nor Baker’s correspondence with ERG MPs has been included in transparency records published by DExEU.
Through a sequence of Freedom of Information requests sent to DExEU, and in discussions held with senior Whitehall sources, openDemocracy has established how Baker avoided publicly disclosing his continuing links with the ERG by claiming his attendance at their private events “were not in his capacity as a minister” and therefore did not need to be listed in quarterly disclosures of relevant meetings.
At one ERG breakfast meeting held on October 17 last year in Terrace Dining Room C in Westminster, Baker was in the audience alongside twenty ERG MPs. The agenda of the meeting was ‘Reporting Brexit’.
A senior political journalist from a pro-Brexit newspaper gave a brief speech about his perceptions of the Brexit process so far. This was followed by a question-and-answer session. Baker did not speak but was described as “quietly attentive” by one attendee.
Also in attendance was Suella Braverman [née Fernandes] who chaired the ERG before being promoted in January this year to a ministerial role alongside Baker at DExEU. Braverman last year gave an embarrassing interview to Channel 4 News where she claimed the membership list of the ERG was publicly available, but then refused to give any details, effectively saying the make up of the ERG was known only to its members.
Suella Fernandes. Image, Channel4, fair use.
Baker’s appearance at this meeting was not disclosed as part of DExEU’s routine transparency obligations. Although the gathering was titled ‘Reporting Brexit’ and therefore clearly part of Baker’s ministerial territory, his officials nevertheless said he had not been attending “in his capacity as a DExEu minister.”
Within a few days of the ERG breakfast, there were renewed media reports that Theresa May needed to do more planning for a “no deal” Brexit.
Of other events hosted by ERG over the last 18 months, DExEU would only confirm Baker had not attended as a “minister”.
Officials also confirmed they held correspondence between Baker and MPs known to be members of the ERG. The department said the exchanges were private and did not have be disclosed, but insisted they were committed to transparency “wherever possible.”
Last year openDemocracy revealed that more than £250,000 of public money was being used to fund the ERG, an 80-strong private caucus of Tory MPs that is widely regarded as a party-within-a-party.
Baker is acknowledged as the ideologically-driven MP who turned the ERG from being an ignored backbench talking shop into a formidable group demanding a complete break with Europe and an end to what he called “the EU’s despotism”. They have also been described as holding Theresa May hostage over any attempts to water down Brexit.
When Baker became a DExEu minister after the 2017 general election, the chair role was passed to Suella Braverman, an inexperienced MP. When she was promoted, Jacob Rees-Mogg took over. However, Baker is still regarded by many in the ERG as its behind-the-scenes driving force, with Rees-Mogg merely an effective public face.
“This isn’t just a bend or a twist of the rules of the game. This is ignoring an established code.”
Ben Bradshaw, the former Culture Secretary in Gordon Brown’s Labour government, who has raised previous concerns about Baker, has written to Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, and to the permanent secretary at DExEU, Philip Rycroft, for an explanation.
Bradshaw told openDemocracy: “I wrote and tabled parliamentary questions for months about undisclosed meetings Mr Baker held with the controversial hard Brexit lobbying organisation, Legatum, which he failed to answer, only for it to be revealed that he indeed had numerous meetings with this organisation which he had not declared.”
Some Whitehall officials with knowledge of Baker’s movements and political associations are also “unhappy” about how the ministerial code is being applied inside Davis’s department. One told openDemocracy: “This isn’t just a bend or a twist of the rules of the game. This is ignoring an established code.”
Ministerial rules forbid membership of parliamentary groups, or the offer of formal support to pressure groups dependent on government funding. If a minister is discussing government business without an official being present, this has to be disclosed by their department.
The Labour MP Ian Murray, a leading supporter of the People’s Vote campaign to hold a second referendum on the final Brexit deal between the UK and the EU, told openDemocracy: “Steve Baker’s behaviour raises serious questions about his conduct as a minister and reveals the political chaos and factionalism at the heart of the Government.”
Murray said that although Baker was taking a ministerial salary, he seemed to be playing factional games using public money. “It is remarkable that the Prime Minister lets this behaviour carry on. She is so politically trapped that she won’t act even when ministers are playing fast and loose with collective responsibility.”
The Labour MP Ben Bradshaw's letter to Philip Rycroft, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union.
Last month it emerged that Baker held undisclosed meetings with Shankar Singham, the former Washington lobbyist who reinvented himself as a trade economist and until recently ran a trade unit at the Legatum Institute.
Singham is now director of the international trade and competition unit at the Institute for Economic Affairs. He has said that a UK free of all trade ties with the EU could help boost the world economy by $2 trillion over the next 15 years. Many economists disagree.
Despite transparency rules intended to reveal who Baker, as a minister, was talking to, Buzzfeed reported that Baker and Singham had a number of meetings at Legatum’s Mayfair offices. DExEU claim Baker and Singham have been friends since the Brexit referendum in 2016 and as such their meetings have been ‘social’ and therefore outside disclosure regulations.
Baker is the only MP registered as having accepted a donation from the Constitutional Research Council, the shadowy group that gave the DUP’s Brexit campaign more than £425,000. In December 2016, the CRC gave Baker £6,500 to “fund hospitality for ERG members and their staff” at a pre-Christmas event.