Brexit: Hardline European Research Group branded ‘a corruption of Conservatism’ by senior Tory MP

Organisation which drove UK to a hard Brexit made up of ‘climate change deniers’ and ‘Trump sympathisers’, new book is told

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 05 August 2020 16:40 BST
Brexit briefing: How long until the end of the transition period?

The European Research Group of Tory MPs which drove the UK to a hard Brexit is branded “a corruption of Conservatism” by a senior party figure, in a new book.

The organisation – which wrecked Theresa May’s agreement, leading to Boris Johnson’s hardline EU exit – is made up of “climate change deniers” who “were quite happy to see Trump win”, a former colleague says.

The book, by the journalist Peter Geoghegan, seeks to map the transformation of the once little-known ERG into an ultra-powerful player in Conservative politics, as the Brexit fight developed.

Despite not taking a public stance at the 2016 referendum, it then campaigned for a clean break from Brussels and was instrumental in defeating Ms May’s attempts at compromise.

Guto Bebb, a former Tory minister who stood down last December, told the author of Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics: “It morphed into a no-deal Brexit sect.”

And Tom Tugendhat, the influential Tory chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, was damning in his verdict of the group, now led by the outspoken Mark Francois.

“It’s a corruption of Conservatism. It is rampant libertarianism. It’s the very opposite of what it means to be a Conservative,” Mr Tugendhat said.

The ERG – formed way back in 1993, to oppose closer EU integration – was attacked as a “party within a party” for its trench warfare against the former prime minister.

It ran its own whipping operation to defeat her deal, prompting Anna Soubry, then a Tory MP, to say Jacob Rees-Mogg was “running our country. Theresa May is no longer in charge”.

In the book, Mr Bebb – who joined the ERG in 2010 – describes how it was then a genuine research group examining developments in Brussels, saying: “It was pretty nerdy. Which appealed to me.”

At the time, it met only every couple of months, but prominent members such as Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and Liam Fox led Vote Leave when the referendum arrived.

Mr Geoghegan argues that the ERG “quickly changed shape, emerging as a vocal and highly organised opponent of a soft exit from the EU”.

Its members started to appear frequently on television, listed as ERG spokespeople. Supporters such as Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Mr Rees-Mogg had not even been involved before the shock Leave vote.

Mr Bebb said senior Tories believed they could “get the ERG to fall into line by bringing them into government,” but added. “It simply didn’t work. It was a disaster.”

He described the group as becoming “Singapore on steroids” – advocating a low-tax, regulation-lite society – as well as being populated by “climate change deniers” relaxed about Donald Trump.

Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics by Peter Geoghegan, a journalist at the website openDemocracy, is published by Head of Zeus on Thursday 6 August.

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