Exclusive: Steve Baker resigns as ERG Chair
Steve Baker has stepped down as chairman of the European Research Group.
In his resignation letter, he said that Boris Johnson “has the policy, the mandate and the majority he needs to deliver an exit from the EU worth having” and that it was time for him “to give way to others on this issue.”
Mr. Baker led the band of Tory eurosceptic rebels who voted down Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement three times, which ultimately led to her resignation.
In the final meeting of ERG parliamentarians before the fateful third meaningful vote (MV3) on Theresa May’s deal in March 2019, Baker told a packed committee room why he would not vote for the deal that they had all come under such pressure to back:
“What is our liberty for if not to govern ourselves?
Like all of you I have wrestled with my conscience about what to do.
I could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river. These fools and knaves and cowards are voting on things they don’t even understand. We’ve been put in this place by people whose addiction to power without responsibility has led them to put the choice of No Brexit or this deal. I may yet resign the whip than be part of this.”
One MP present told me that the speech was “very emotional, very powerful and very moving. When he spoke you could feel the agony of the decision he was making and the decision we were all making.”
Some present believe the Whips had been hard at work. DUP MP Sammy Wilson was told that the ranks of ERG MPs apparently changing their minds to support May’s deal was an orchestrated display by MPs who were down to support it anyway.
Boris Johnson and Sir Iain Duncan Smith had just addressed the room, asking for MPs to vote for Theresa May’s deal but then Steve Baker stood up and delivered “a spellbinding speech” after which “there was a genuine standing ovation.”
One source in the room said the intervention was “absolutely critical” because it increased the number of Spartans and this stopped Theresa May risking another vote.
Baker, the MP for Wycombe, told this magazine what he felt about voting against the government’s Brexit deal when doing so was presented as spelling doom for Brexit and risking putting Corbyn into No. 10:
“Was the path clear? No. It was a huge gamble but we knew it was a huge gamble. Dominic Cummings told us we were Remain’s ‘useful idiots’ and we knew we weren’t. We knew we needed a new Prime Minister and a new mandate but we just were not clear how we would achieve it. I had to watch David Davis, Boris Johnson – both of whom I’d resigned over Chequers with – Jacob and Dom Raab – some of my closest allies and friends fold and vote for the deal. It was awful. Just bringing it back I feel sick thinking about it.”
But where did this atypical Tory firebrand come from politically? Perhaps strangely, Baker had been inspired to join the Conservative Party by David Cameron. Baker was attracted to Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ agenda which placed an emphasis on personal responsibility and community-led action. But he was hooked by the euroscepticism. In 2007 the then opposition leader made a speech in the Czech Republic in which he said the EU was the “last gasp of an outdated ideology, a philosophy which has no place in our new world of freedom”.
“I was fully on board with that version of Cameron,” Baker told me.
Later Matthew Elliott and Daniel Hannan would ask this tyro MP to lead Conservatives for Britain, a group ostensibly set up to judge David Cameron’s efforts at EU renegotiation in 2015.
But David Campbell Bannerman, his co-chair at CfB, said that when they started they made a pact:
“We both agreed that we were not in this for our own ego or advancement, we would just do everything in our power to deliver Brexit. Our satisfaction or reward enough would be to live in a free country, job or no job, recognition or no recognition. This was no time for ego. Despite the temptations and pressures we stuck to that.”
Matthew Elliott picked Baker because he was a fresh face unscarred by the battles of the past and affable amongst the new intake.
Elliott, who went on to be the CEO of Vote Leave, said he was immediately impressed by the sheer speed of CfB’s growth under Baker’s watch. At this point he told me he hadn’t realised Baker’s full capacity for organisation or his ruthless streak which began to develop under the battle-like conditions of intra-parliamentary warfare.
On 7th June the existence of the group was revealed on the front page of the Daily Telegraph with an accompanying op-ed from Baker.
The Wycombe MP had already recruited 50 MPs by the time that the Telegraph headline was printed and in his book All Out War, Tim Shipman reveals Cameron was “spooked” because no intelligence of the operation had reached him. Baker’s organisational gifts and industry were rare commodities for a Tory MP to possess.
During the referendum campaign Baker’s job was to smooth relations between Vote Leave and the Parliamentary Party but he wasn’t always happy with the tactics of the designated campaign and would sometimes let his feelings be known. At the time however, his power to change things was limited: it was only after Theresa May became Prime Minister in 2016 that he rose to true prominence.
Chris Heaton-Harris the then chair of the ERG was made a Government Whip by Theresa May and a vacancy was created to chair the group of eurosceptics.
During a breakfast meeting in the House of Commons, Baker was declared the new leader. Sir Bernard Jenkin had been the temporary Chair but describes why he wanted Baker to lead the group:
“We chose Steve because he was popular and had effective contacts in the newer intakes. He had proved effective as Chair of Conservatives for Britain during the EU Referendum but I’d not quite realised how effective he would become. But Government incompetence creates that opportunity.”
In a new government with a narrow majority and without the media attention of a referendum, parliamentary politics was fast becoming the primary vehicle of ensuring the UK left the EU in a meaningful way and Baker had just been put in charge.
But the celebration was slightly muted since Baker had zoned out and was busy on his phone at the moment the decision was made. He heard a cheer which forced him to look up and ask what had just happened. Sir Bernard replied that they had just made him leader.
But far from being a character flaw, Baker’s phone addiction would prove to be vital to their organisation.
Baker often coordinated the ERG minute-by-minute with a vast array of WhatsApp lists and groups, firing out multiple messages to different groups whilst in meetings or in the chamber. Former Northern Ireland Secretary and fellow Brexiteer Owen Paterson said this arrangement was important, “he had an incredibly efficient communication system. Once we had agreed to do something he got it out rapidly and his command of all the techy stuff meant we could react very quickly to what was going on.”
In June 2017 Theresa May made Baker a junior minister in the Brexit department but he resigned one year later along with the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, and Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, when No.10 revealed the Chequers plan for Brexit.
During an inquiry by Bill Cash’s European Scrutiny Committee into the failed Brexit negotiations, Baker said he thought one of the reasons that he had been made a Minister was “so when the moment came of capitulation I would be asked to sell [May’s Brexit deal] and of course I was not willing to do so.”
Whilst he was a minister Baker kept in constant contact with his ERG colleagues and continued to attend the ERG Steering Group meetings chaired by Sir Bernard.
Owen Paterson told The Critic that Baker’s knowledge inside Government meant that he was a valuable asset to the rebels, “after he resigned he brought interesting insights into the meetings, he knew the officials and knew the background and the lines that were being taken inside Government.”
One MP present at the steering meetings said there was “always a healthy dialogue” between backbenchers and Brexiteers in Government. Another said there was sometimes friction between Baker and the ERG after he was made a Minister. But Sir Bernard, who ended up voting against Theresa May’s deal every time, said he was less worried Baker would “go native” in Government but more that his principles would not allow him to be pragmatic.
Those who worked with him during the last few years describe him as a leader who was calm under pressure and “acutely aware of the responsibility that came with making the decision to continue opposition to the May deal when nearly all Conservative MPs and commentators had thrown in the towel.”
Another close colleague described him as “The ultimate team player and highly committed to Brexit.”
Shanker Singham, the CEO of Competere, who has been a trade adviser to both the UK and the US, compares Baker to Eric Liddell, the Christian runner made famous by the film Chariots of Fire who refused to run on Sundays. “If Steve had compromised on his principles it would have broken who he was.”
“Could he have climbed the greasy pole more effectively if he played the game? He’d probably have a big role in government now if he’d taken the junior minister role Boris offered him before the election, but he didn’t want to do something which was perceived at the time to be another Potemkin village exercise. Steve was most effective when nobody realised he was at the centre of the action.”
Simon Boyd, Managing Director of ReidSteel and prominent Brexiteer, said Baker, in particular had earned the respect amongst many in business and that even within the CBI some refer to him as “the general.” He added “Steve Baker has always been one of the few who stuck to his guns, without him and some other key people, we would not have the strong government we have today.”
The long-standing ERG research director Christopher Howarth told me that Baker was always concerned about the technical aspects of Brexit policy:
“He was very interested in the detail – you could be sure that if you sent him a document he would read every single word. It was only because he became an expert on Theresa May’s deal he realised he could not vote for it.”
The outgoing ERG chair has said he wanted to focus more on constituents and that it was time for him to “return to certain economic issues which I consider as least as important to the future of the country as exiting the EU”.
A former software engineer who worked for several investment banks, Baker claims that many within the financial sector don’t understand their own business.
The Wycombe MP is known to be critical of the current system of global finance and what he sees as the problems of Keynesian ‘easy money’.
In his resignation letter addressed to his deputy Mark Francois, Baker concludes: “I suppose we have wielded more power from the back benches than any others in the long history of our party and country. I thank God we have succeeded.”
When asked if he would return in the event Boris Johnson reneged on his Brexit promises, he told The Critic podcast, “I suppose I really would reluctantly allow myself to be drawn back into serving my colleagues but it’s such a huge hypothetical because I really don’t think it’s going to happen.”
You can read his full resignation letter below:
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe