For what seems like a lifetime, we have read headlines time and again that ‘Theresa May tries to appease the ERG,’ or ‘The ERG announces that they will never support the backstop,’ or ‘ERG elect to drive Britain over the No-Deal cliff-edge, book champagne-party in Kensington mansion for March 30th.’
So if they have that much influence, then they must be in power, right? Who is this group of sneaky conspirators? Did we vote for them? What even is the ERG?
What is the ERG?
In 1993, Britain’s relationship with the EU deepened with the signing of a new treaty, called the Masstricht Treaty. A Conservative MP called Sir Michael Spicer created the European Research Group (the ERG) as a response to this, as he was concerned about the increased integration and the effect it would have on Britain.
To be clear, then, the ERG, at its core, is a non-governmental organisation that was founded because of concern over British integration into the EU, (which is also called ‘Euroscepticism’).
Initially, it could be described as a lobbying group, where backbench MPs (those who are not ministers for a department) could pool resources and efforts to try and change their colleagues’ opinions around European integration.
The Brexit Referendum
Over the years, the Conservative Party has been split down the middle by those who believe in further integration into the EU (Europhiles) and those who oppose it (Eurosceptics). While its impact cannot be properly calculated, given that it is an influence group rather than any kind of official organisation, it is not too radical to suggest that the ERG has been the driving force behind the Eurosceptics.
When the referendum was called by David Cameron in 2016, ten members of the ERG were major players in the Vote Leave campaign, including names such as:
- Michael Gove (current Environment Secretary and former Education Secretary)
- Iain Duncan Smith (former Conservative leader)
- Liam Fox (current Trade Secretary)
- Chris Grayling (current Transport Secretary)
- David Davis (former Brexit Secretary)
The ERG members’ impact in the Vote Leave campaign cannot be underestimated, therefore.
After the 2016 Referendum result, the ERG continued to be a powerful voice in ensuring that the referendum result was respected carried out. However, it is only recently that we have seen it at its most powerful position.
Theresa May has been negotiating with Brussels over the terms of the Brexit strategy since 2016, but as the deadline of March 29th draws nearer, the urgency for her negotiations to be completed has drastically increased, and the rift within the party has become more pronounced.
Under Jacob Rees-Mogg, who became chairman in January 2018, the ERG has become far more vocal in the press. Given their Eurosceptic nature, it is not surprising that the ERG are in favour of as ‘hard’ a Brexit as can be negotiated, i.e. where we leave the EU with as little of the previous relationship as possible.
The ERG have also stated that they would favour a No-Deal Brexit over a soft Brexit. A No-Deal Brexit means we would leave the EU on March 29th with no transition period, a time until December 2020 which is set aside for us to negotiate our new trade, legal and security relationships with the EU.
Back in January, Theresa May finally negotiated a deal, but it contained the ‘backstop,’ which put temporary measures in place to keep the entire UK within the EU’s customs union if an agreement could not be reached about the Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland border during the transition period.
Because Ireland would still be in the EU and N.I. wouldn’t, a hard border would need to be installed. This is extremely problematic because of the historical violence between the two states which was finally eased with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The ERG were vehemently opposed to the backstop, as they believed it to be a trap set by the EU to trick the UK into permanently being in the EU’s customs union. As such, they have opposed the deal ever since and have been a spectre over May’s shoulder as she tries to find a solution.
Why are they so powerful?
Just because the ERG disagree with the deal, that doesn’t mean that they should be able to dictate what Theresa May’s government does, right?
Actually, they sort of can. Because Theresa May lost her Parliamentary majority in the last election, she does not have the required number of MPs to pass a bill (of which her deal is one) through Parliament. She formed an alliance with the DUP to ensure she would have a majority for future votes, but never considered that her own party might vote against her.
The ERG’s membership alone, if they oppose her, is enough to take away her majority, and as such her ability to pass the deal. Given that they also hold influence over other MPs, if the ERG says that they won’t vote for it, swathes of other MPs won’t either. This is partially why May lost the first vote on her deal so badly (although the backstop is actually a concern for all corners of Parliament).
Because of the precarious nature of her power and the lack of a clear majority in the House of Commons, the ERG is able to dictate what May must do to appease them. There is a tendency for Eurosceptics to be more right-wing than moderate, which is why we have seen the Conservative Party take a more right-wing tone of late – the ERG’s influence is starting to show.
It seems fairly hypocritical to me that a group like the ERG, which contains self-appointed members who now control our government’s policy, is so averse to the EU, which contains self-appointed members who control our government’s policy.
There is something profoundly unlikeable about many of the ERG’s members, too, and it feels like something of an Old Boys’ club (members recently went back to Rees-Mogg’s house for a champagne reception after the deal was voted down so strongly). Rees-Mogg himself is something of a vaudeville villain, looking like a tweed-wearing pipe-cleaner who part-times as a child-snatcher on weekends.
He is also famously anti-abortion and same-sex marriage.
The ERG have every right to be concerned about the EU. The majority of Eurosceptics believe that the institution itself is not all bad, but rather that our relationship with it makes us less powerful on the international stage and we give more than we take.
However, my personal view is that we are a country with plenty of influence and power but who need the infrastructure of a bloc like the EU to thrive. While it is always a good idea to hold the EU accountable and to be double-check that we are doing the right thing, to have a group of schemers behind closed doors manipulate the policy of a government cannot be a good thing for our democracy.
So far, three MPs have resigned from the Conservative Party citing the ERG as a major factor in their decision. I imagine it’ll soon be more.