Boris Johnson’s comfortable general election win has bolstered the Conservatives’ right-wing eurosceptic group of MPs.
The European Research Group (ERG) is seeing its numbers swell with new Tory MPs elected in the 80-seat majority victory last week.
Newly elected MPs now outnumber their more experienced colleagues at ERG meetings, leading to questions about their influence and who exactly belongs to the group.
What is the ERG?
In an article for The Daily Telegraph, the group’s founder, former MP Michael Spicer who died in May, says he set up the ERG in 1993, during the Maastricht furore, for Conservative MPs concerned about the EU’s movement towards a federal state.
“The group was formed on the presumption that the most effective way of at least modifying this process was by working internally within the Conservative Party rather than, for instance, setting up a rival party such as UKIP,” Spicer writes.
The group is technically a “pooled staffing resource” for MPs, recognised by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), which means its members can claim back their subscriptions from the taxpayer.
The ERG relaunched in 2016 following the Brexit vote. According to the then chair Steve Baker, “60 Conservatives, plus colleagues from the DUP, Labour and UKIP”, signed a statement saying that the UK needed to leave the European Economic Area and customs union, a position now known as a “hard Brexit”.
In March 2019, the Constitution Unit in the department of political science at University College London reported that the Conservatives “have their own party-within-a-party, in the strongly pro-Brexit European Research Group”.
The group was a “thorn in Theresa May’s side as she repeatedly tried to get her Brexit deal through parliament”, says The Times, and some of its members – the self-named Spartans – were responsible for voting her deal down and seeing her departure from office.
But the Spartans “finally laid down their weapons” to vote for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal in October, as The Telegraph reported at the time.
Who are its members?
The group is not required to publish its membership list, the BBC reports. However, since 2010, it has been possible to see which MPs allocate a small portion of their office allowances to cover the costs of the ERG’s researcher, in expenses data published by the IPSA.
Steve Baker, the group’s chairman, tweeted a photo of the group this week that showed 37 MPs, though the group has previously been cagey about how many members it has.
First-time ERGers at the meeting included:
– Jacob Young, the first ever Tory MP for Redcar and a prominent Leave campaigner
– Paul Bristow, a public affairs consultant who overturned Labour’s by-election win in Peterborough
– Brendan Clarke-Smith, MP for Bassetlaw and Leave campaigner
– Mark Jenkinson, a former UKIP candidate who won the Workington seat
– Jonathan Gullis, a schoolteacher who won Stoke-on-Trent North for the Tories for the first time in the seat’s 70-year history
– Joy Morrissey, who beat former Tory and outspoken Remainer Dominic Grieve in Beaconsfield
– Sarah Dines, a barrister and winner of the safe Tory seat of Derbyshire Dales.
What do the new members mean for the government?
Last week Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party, said the ERG wouldn’t have any influence on Johnson thanks to his large majority.
But ERG insiders insist that the group still has a place, reports the Times. Baker says the group will now support the government rather than seek to undermine it – as it did with May.
“Join the European Research Group. This is going to be a busy and important parliament,” Baker wrote in Conservative Home this week. “You’ll need supportive, friendly colleagues who rely on one another. We will be supporting Boris to get a great deal and secure our future.”
The support of the ERG, together with Johnson’s healthy majority, puts Johnson in an almost unassailable position. “But it doesn’t follow that the ERG leadership has handed Johnson a blank cheque on Brexit. Rather, it has endorsed the specific path to a future relationship outlined in his deal,” says Patrick Maguire in the New Statesman.
Why is it controversial?
The Labour Party argues that the ERG is in breach of parliamentary rules over its use of public funds, which are not supposed to be used to promote partisan ends.
However, the Government has denied that ERG membership is a breach of the code, according to openDemocracy.
In a statement to the website, a spokesperson reportedly said: “This is a party political research group which provides briefings to Conservative MPs relating to the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Such research groups are perfectly normal practice amongst political parties and we do not consider this a ministerial code issue.”