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Ex-Brexit minister Steve Baker remained in charge of secretive Tory ultra faction

Under the ministerial code, Baker was supposed to cut his ties with the European Research Group when he joined the government in 2017. But newly released emails show that as Brexit minister, he offered them private briefings on critical government policy.

Steve Baker MP, fair use

Control and influence over a hard-line Brexiteer group of Conservative MPs remained in the hands of Steve Baker throughout his time as a Brexit minister, according to new documents obtained by openDemocracy. Jacob Rees-Mogg was merely the public face of the secretive group.

Baker led the taxpayer-funded European Research Group (ERG) of pro-Brexit MPs until being appointed a minister in 2017. But while in office he offered to address the ERG privately on government policy. These briefings were not recorded in transparency data from Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU).

Official rules bar ministers from “being associated with non-public organisations whose objectives may in any degree conflict with government policy.” Although the ERG has often clashed with the government over Brexit, Baker continued to “act as though he was just the lightly-detached chief executive of the ERG”, according to a senior Conservative source with knowledge of the group’s activities.

Baker resigned his ministerial post last month at the same time as his boss at DExEU, David Davis, complaining he had been “blind-sided” by Theresa May’s ‘Chequers’ plan.

Since that resignation, Baker has re-emerged as a leading voice in the powerful ERG lobby, which some believe controls the short-term future of May’s premiership. The ERG is set to unveil an alternative blueprint for a hard Brexit ahead of September’s Conservative party conference. The paper has been jointly written by Baker and Rees-Mogg.

In July 2017, just weeks after Baker became a minister, officials acting for him were in direct contact with the ERG. The correspondence included arrangements for Baker to give private briefings to the group about the so-called Great Repeal Bill.

One redacted email, sent from a DExEU mailbox, states that “Steve (Baker) would like to brief interested ERG members on the Repeal Bill, at a convenient time next week”.

The ERG does not publish lists of its members—thought to include more than 80 MPs—but another email notes that there is a “larger group” and “a smaller more senior one" within the ERG. Baker is invited to choose which group to address. A subsequent email, with an ERG email signature, remarks, “Steve Baker has kindly offered to brief the group on the contents of the Great Repeal Bill.”

The Repeal Bill, formally known as the EU Withdrawal Bill, is a critical piece of legislation which has the primary aim of ensuring EU law will no longer be applied in the UK after exit from the European Union. It aims to also end the power of the European Court of Justice.

Baker publicly left the ERG when he was promoted into May’s administration following the 2017 general election. But Baker’s severing of formal ties with the ERG appears to have been merely an administrative gesture.

One Whitehall official with DExEU connections told openDemocracy: “Those close to Mr Baker regarded him as never really leaving the ERG. He clearly saw the group as a necessary powerbase and these emails show how keen he was [to] remain a general rather than the observer he should have been.”

Previously openDemocracy and others have revealed that Baker held other meetings with the ERG and lobbyists that were not recorded in transparency logs.

Baker “untouchable”

Baker’s use of DExEU civil servants to contact a secretive group that some regard as a ‘party within a party’ could merit investigation by the Cabinet Office. But pro-EU Tory backbenchers believe such complaints are currently pointless. One told openDemocracy: “Baker in many respects is untouchable. His lead role in the ERG, and the damage he could inflict, gives him political armour.”

Despite taking taxpayers’ money to fund their operations, the ERG has repeatedly refused to make public the names of its members. In the correspondence released to openDemocracy, DExEU has redacted all the email addresses of those expected to attend Baker’s briefing, citing data protection rules.

Since his resignation last month, Baker has quickly slotted back into a leadership role among ERG MPs. He has publicly dismissed fears over a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

The ERG’s hard-Brexit policy paper by Baker and Rees-Mogg is expected to attack May’s Chequers plan and question the merits of any ties with the EU. Rumours of its content have suggested it will describe May’s plan as continuing to honour rules handed down by Brussels.

Marshalling his troops

In a speech to the Commons in July, Baker threatened to scupper any “high-alignment” deal with the EU when it came to the Commons. He offered a barely-coded warning that there were 40-plus hard-Brexiteers—seen as a reference to the ERG—who would vote with the SNP and Labour to kill off the Chequers plan.

openDemocracy has previously revealed that Baker was a regular attender at ERG meetings in the House of Commons during his time as a minister. Despite criticism from Labour MP Ben Bradshaw that his failure to publicly list such appearances contravened ministerial rules, Baker claimed his attendance at ERG gatherings was only on a personal, rather than a ministerial, basis.

A Cabinet Office examination accepted Baker’s reassurance that his attendance at ERG meetings which discussed Brexit policy could be put down to a “personal” interest as a constituency MP rather than ministerial interest.

Baker took over as chair of the ERG in 2016 and is credited with a relaunch that turned it from a largely ignored backwater of euro-scepticism into an effective 80-strong gathering of MPs aiming to end the “EU’s despotism”. He is on record stating that the entire EU needs to be “wholly torn down” and that it was a barrier to international “free trade and peace”.

When Baker was promoted into the government after the June 2017 general election, the chair of the ERG passed to Suella Braverman. Her promotion into DExEU alongside Baker later that year saw the chair pass to Rees-Mogg.

Suella Braverman. Image, Channel 4 News, fair use.

Lack of transparency

Baker has been criticised previously for failing to respect ministerial rules in office. Earlier this year, Buzzfeed reported that Baker had a series of undisclosed meetings with Shanker Singham, formerly of the Legatum Institute and now at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

More recently, Baker was in the spotlight after it emerged that Singham had introduced the Brexit minister to controversial US agribusinesses to discuss opportunities that might arise from a deregulated post-Brexit UK.

The IEA denied that the meetings with Baker, along with others arranged with the then foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, the then Brexit secretary, David Davis, and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, were part of an elaborate ‘cash for access’ programme.

An aide working for Baker told Greenpeace—which had been investigating the IEA’s US donor connections—that any suggestion the then Brexit minister attended meetings because “access” to him had been sold “is entirely false”.

Earlier this month, Baker was again in the news when it emerged that he had invested £70,000 in a company that is encouraging investors to buy gold to avoid the hit of a no-deal Brexit.

The allegations in this piece were put to Steve Baker’s office. He has yet to respond.

Correction, 31 August 2018: When this article was first published, it mistook the status of Steve Baker's ministerial position. This has now been corrected.

About the authors

James Cusick is editor of openMedia at openDemocracy and a former political correspondent at The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC.

 

Peter Geoghegan is investigations editor of openDemocracy's main site. He can be found on Twitter @PeterKGeoghegan.

 

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