Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson leave Downing Street on October 22, 2019 (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Decision time for the ERG

It may already be too late for backbench Brexiteers to cry “betrayal”

The government LTT [Line to take] on Brexit is that the UK has left the EU and that the Government is now negotiating a trade deal with the EU Commission.

But, still in a transition period where the UK accepts EU law and with a treaty already signed, it’s slightly more complicated than that. Over the last few months the Brexit negotiating team led by David Frost have met different factions of Tory MPs in an attempt to explain to them what’s going on and, inevitably, in an attempt to see off a rebellion. Speaking to Brexiteer MPs I hear time after time the same phrase: ‘they tell us whatever we want to hear, privately’. Or, sometimes, in even more jaded tones, ‘they tell us what they think we want to hear.’

Several times over the last year, at times with Michael Gove in tow, the British negotiating team have met the ERG in various forms. The concern of the ERG is that the Government is implementing both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol, each of which ministers from the PM downwards deprecated to Brexiteer MPs. And did so from before they were signed up to, and with frequent assurances that ‘all this would be taken care of.’ Well, we’re at the taking care of business end of the stick now, so how’s it all going?

The ERG note that what Gove says to them in private are not formally recorded but his public comments are

During each government/ERG encounter, ministers and No 10 staffers have tried to reassure the ERG that their worst fears about the WA and the NIP (the ones Boris and others used to say they shared too) just won’t happen. Initially their patter tended towards, the Withdrawal Agreement would not be implemented and that they would, in effect, tear it up. But more recently their argument has been that the Withdrawal Agreement will be neutered with legislation. Andrew Bridgen says Boris Johnson personally promised him that if the UK didn’t get a trade deal then “we’d only pay the bar bill when we left” which he suggested means less than £8bn. Interestingly the Prime Minister didn’t put a precise figure on the promise.

Some Brexiteers were impressed with the way Boris Johnson handled the European Council summit and only a few I spoke to were willing to entertain the idea that the dramatic and short-lived walk out from the British side was a way for the PM to break his October 15 deadline. Andrew Bridgen particularly enjoyed Angela Merkel’s reaction at the summit, saying: “it’s almost as if she thought Brexit was a process where the chain for the dog was going to be a bit longer, but at the summit she seemed to realise the chain was coming off.”

Brexiteers for now are keeping their powder dry, but will be furious if the Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland protocol are put into force on 1 January. One ERG source says if there is to be a trade deal, the terms of it must supersede the Withdrawal Agreement and if there is no trade deal, then under no circumstances must it be enacted – especially since the EU have broken the terms of it. All agree that Northern Ireland must not be separated from the UK’s internal market and the Withdrawal Agreement must be altered.

Which brings us to the Internal Market Bill which supposedly Joe Biden thinks of day and night. When Brandon Lewis said the Bill broke International Law in the Commons it provoked outrage from Remainers and even ex-Tory leader Michael Howard. But the provisions in the Bill do not solve the issues Brexiteers and Unionists have with the Northern Ireland Protocol. A point the ERG’s senior researcher Chris Howarth made in an article here.

The problem for Brexiteers is that time is running out

The explanation from the British negotiating team as to how this is going to be solved has changed over time. First, they promised the Withdrawal Agreement would not be enacted, then, when Michael Gove publicly said the opposite, they said the Internal Market Bill would give them the power to change it. They promised the ERG that they would privately show them the bill in draft form first, then didn’t. When the Bill turned up and failed to achieve more than modest amendments to the WA, the government began pointing to future legislation as the solution. By designating a future Bill, subject to the Speaker’s approval, as a Money Bill, they could neuter the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement and prevent the Lords from blocking it due to the upper house’s inability to alter something certified as a Money Bill. The first problem for the Government is that the Speaker is unlikely to grant Money Bill status to legislation designed to do something else. This is the practice of “tacking”, which was condemned in a resolution of the House of Commons as long ago as 1702.

The problem for Brexiteers is that time is running out. No.10 believes the absolute deadline for trade talks will arrive in about two weeks time in order for EU member states to have time to ratify an agreement. This puts the ERG in a dilemma. Is it better for them to throw their lot in with No.10 and their ever changing goalposts or to cry betrayal now, focussing on what everyone can see clearly: the Government’s public comments about implementing the WA? While it’s easier to just sigh and pretend to believe the private reassurances of No.10, several Brexiteer MPs I spoke to are beginning to think BRINO will play its part in reviving Nigel Farage and whatever his party ends up being called. They note that while the smooth whisperings of Michael Gove to them in private are not formally recorded, his public comments on his commitment to the Withdrawal Agreement most certainly are.

Have the ERG enough time left to get a ‘betrayal!’ narrative in the air?

Currently the covert Number 10 line to the ERG is, the negotiations are going nowhere. They say the Bloomberg story that suggested the UK had conceded on fishing was wide of the mark, and that there was still no progress on state aid. But for Brexiteers, trade talks failing is not enough. The overriding desire is to make sure the Government doesn’t implement what it has already agreed to implement. Despite private reassurances to the contrary, it isn’t obvious that the Government is planning a U-turn on that front. Whereas there is considerable fear that the ERG are being played, with everything the government says reassuringly to them in private simply being a means to make their inevitable revolt happen too late.

If there is one lesson the faction of Vote Leave presently running the government seem to have learned from their past dealings with the ERG it’s, don’t let yourself be seen to be outflanked on the right. Have the ERG enough time left to get a ‘betrayal!’ narrative in the air? We’ll see, but the prospect of one does seem to be the thing No 10 truly fears and which it will say anything in private to try and kill off.

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