Tory MPs and members of the European Research Group (ERG) (R-L) Bill Cash, Mark Francois, Iain Duancan Smith and Steve Baker leave Downing Street after group's meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this year (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Are Brexiteer MPs happy?

Somebody is being played for a fool and the ERG are starting to think it isn’t Brussels

Artillery Row

There was expectation of a Brexit trade deal announcement on Sunday night, but then we were told the differences between the two sides were too great to bridge. Boris Johnson and Ursula Van Der Leyen, the EU commission President, spoke on the phone and, we’re told, asked both of their negotiating teams to work out what the big differences were. The prospects of a deal were then presented as looking slight and on Monday Tory MPs were duly whipped to reinsert UK-sovereignty, ECJ competence-denying clauses into the UK Internal Market Bill, something the EU had previously said would tank an agreement.

But then on Tuesday Michael Gove agreed something with EU Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. We haven’t had the full details of it yet but whatever it was it meant the UK decided it could announce it would withdraw several clauses in the Internal Market Bill and would not introduce them into the Taxation bill.

Up until now the ERGs hive mind leadership have been fairly optimistic about the direction of travel but over the weekend some were starting to entertain severe doubts about what the choreography at play meant. Articles appearing in the press suggesting they were willing to abandon their red lines made many of them even more suspicious and, inevitably, some suspect a senior cabinet member of trying to bounce them into an agreement.

But by the time the clauses were removed from the Internal Market Bill still more senior ERG MPs were reverting to type, much as they thought Theresa May’s sometime senior ministers were too. Everyone has form here. This counter-reaction has been especially marked because Boris Johnson’s No 10 has invested so much more time, and skill, in keeping ERG top brass happy.

“There was nothing we wanted to hear”, said one Spartan leading light, “that they didn’t tell us. They’re still doing it. If you didn’t have the facts in front of you now, you could almost believe Sonic [No 10 Europe Spad Oliver Lewis] believed what he’s still saying”. If, in fact, the ERG are being quickly boiled frogs right at the end of this process, it’s hard to see how there won’t be deepened anger. Few colleagues think David Jones, the flinty ERG chairman, who has expressed confidence in the PM’s Brexit-doing credentials, would want to think he had been taken advantage of. A hangover looms for all the fizzy attention No 10 has paid the ERG privately, should things go wrong from the point of view of the latter.

A senior ERG MP told me: “We’ve given away important bargaining chips in return for an agreement to abide by a code of conduct not backed up by the force of law and still under the ECJ.”

And one of the Spartans, Andrew Bridgen, said there was no way he was going to be bounced into voting for something unless he had had time to read it: “The Spartans have still got their swords and shields, they are all waxed and ready. [Brexit-backing QC] Martin Howe’s insight into the legal text will be essential. I couldn’t vote for something unless we saw all the detail. We’ve been had over before. In Maastricht people hadn’t even read the treaty, that would be a fatal mistake.The EU view the trade negotiations and the future relationship as a method of taking back control of the UK and we must not capitulate.”

A notable example of a senior Brexiteer who has flipped from supporting the Government to opposing it is Bill Cash. Almost a year ago when the Government was writing the legislation needed to enact the Withdrawal Agreement, they adopted several clauses he had written into the Act which, he argued, asserted UK sovereignty. Since then he has not criticised the Government approach in the House of Commons chamber, and has been touted by other senior Brexiteers as being the key to ERG approval. ‘If Bill’s for it, I’m for it’ has been a common refrain – and possibly no ERG MP beyond David Jones and former party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, have received so much confidential attention from Boris Johnson’s political operation.

Since No.10 promised to remove clauses from the UKIM Bill, Bill Cash is now raising concerns in the chamber about the impact on UK sovereignty and has requested Michael Gove appear before his European Scrutiny Committee as soon as possible. This is the talismanic Brexiteer’s first open dissent offered to Boris Johnson’s Leave credentials.

Another MP showing concern is Richard Drax, who today asked Michael Gove if Northern Ireland would be subject to EU law and ECJ jurisdiction. The Minister for the Cabinet Office replied that it would, and snarkily pointed out that many MPs had voted to make it so in the Withdrawal Agreement. The subtext here of course is,’ why are you complaining now when you voted for it?’, but a wider context ERG MPs are all too aware of is that Michael Gove has been promising them for months that the Withdrawal Agreement will be nullified.

All these are bad signs for No.10’s chance of passing any Brexit trade deal without Labour votes. Confident that the legislation to enact the deal would likely pass with Labour support or abstention, it’s possible that the hint of “Brexit betrayal” will embolden red wall Tory MPs into voting against the deal in order to avoid any blame. After all, it’s hard for the whips to argue no deal would be a disaster considering the line to take on Brexit from No.10 is that Brexit is already done, and that the UK would “thrive” without a formal EU trade deal.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover