The hard-Brexit lobbying group, which produces research paid for by taxpayer-funded expenses, appears to be losing support
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The European Research Group (ERG) – the radical, pro-Brexit Conservative lobbying organisation – appears to be dwindling, Byline Times can reveal.
It has logged just 12 paid-up members this year – falling from 35 in 2020, the last time that the group recorded membership contributions.
The ERG is an internal Conservative parliamentary body, with members expected to make a contribution to the pooled staffing costs of the group, using taxpayer-funded expenses. This figure has stood at £2,000 per MP in recent years, including this year.
In other words, the ERG’s staffing costs will be funded to the tune of £24,000 this year, raised from the taxpayer, representing a significant fall from the group’s latest membership round, in June 2020, during which it raised some £70,000.
Some significant individuals appear to have left the group, including former deputy chair Andrea Jenkyns, who has not contributed to the ERG this year. Other departures appear to include Lee Anderson, Jonathan Gullis, John Whittingdale, Desmond Swayne, Andrew Bridgen, Dehenna Davison and Crispin Blunt.
The Ministerial Code states that ministers should take care from becoming “associated with non-public organisations whose objectives may in any degree conflict with Government policy”.
However, parliamentary records suggest that Jacob Rees-Mogg paid £2,000 in taxpayer-funded expenses to the ERG in April, when he was serving as Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency. He was the chair of the ERG from January 2018 to September 2019.
Steve Baker, who paid his £2,000 fees in March and also formerly chaired the group, currently serves as Minister for Northern Ireland.
The research provided by ERG staff members is supposed to be non-party-political. But the group and its members have been assertive in lobbying for a hard Brexit – maintaining that Britain should sever many of its political and economic ties with the EU.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation in May 2019 after the ERG inflicted a series of defeats on her Brexit deal, with Jacob Rees-Mogg saying that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Baker himself released a ‘manifesto’ for a ‘no deal’ exit from the EU days after May’s resignation. Baker has recently apologised for the way he and some of his colleagues behaved during Brexit negotiations.
“It’s with humility that I want to accept and acknowledge that I and others did not always behave in a way which encouraged Ireland and the European Union to trust us,” he said.
However, splits have re-emerged in recent days, with Conservatives divided over reports that “senior government figures” plan to put Britain on course for a Swiss-style relationship with the EU over the next decade – whereby the UK effectively hopes to re-enter the Single Market but without freedom of movement.
An anonymous senior member of the ERG told LBC's Political Editor Theo Usherwood that they would go “completely and utterly berserk” if there were any move towards a Swiss-style arrangement. “For many of us, it’s the defining issue of why we are in politics,” they added.
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A Painful Reality
It has been suggested that a Conservative Government will find it difficult to forge a closer relationship with the EU – even more difficult than during the May years – after former Prime Minister Boris Johnson removed the whip from a host of Brexit pragmatists in September 2019, unseating 21 Conservatives who attempted to remove the possibility of a no-deal exit.
Yet, the declining numbers of the ERG conform to an overall disillusionment with the current Brexit settlement among the British public. YouGov polling suggests that 56% of Brits now think it was wrong to leave the EU – with 32% believing it was right and the rest undecided – including one in five Brexit voters.
Since the 2017 General Election, with the exception of brief periods in April 2020 and April 2021, public opinion has swung further and further against Brexit – with YouGov’s latest poll showing a record lack of support for the project.
This may have something to do with the current cost of living crisis, which Brexit is certainly not helping to alleviate.
The Office for Budget Responsibility – the Government’s independent public finance watchdog – estimated that Brexit would hit the UK economy by twice as much as the Coronavirus pandemic, and reports suggest that Brexit led to 14% fall in UK exports to EU in 2021. Indeed, the UK’s overall trade performance is now at its worst level since records began.
The full list of MPs who have paid £2,000 in pooled staffing fees to the ERG this year is:Adam HollowayBernard JenkinCraig MackinlayDavid JonesGareth BaconGreg SmithIain Duncan SmithLaurence RobertsonMichael FabricantRobin MillarSteve BakerJacob Rees-Mogg
Other notable Conservatives who have previously been ERG members include current Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, Home Secretary Suella Braverman (who formerly chaired the group), Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt, former Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid, and former Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Though the ERG is secretive about its members and executive body, the group currently appears to the chaired by Mark Francois, with his deputy being David Jones. Neither responded to Byline Times’ request for comment.
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