It has no website, no public list of members, and it is accused of misusing taxpayers’ money. But despite its shadowy status, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group is powerful enough to shape Theresa May’s Brexit policy – and has been accused of tearing the Conservative party apart.
The ERG, and its chairman Rees-Mogg, are vigorous proponents of a hard Brexit approach. They have been at the centre of recent Tory disagreements, and operate in tandem with junior ministers in the Brexit department, who in turn used to be at the top of the ERG.
This week, Rees-Mogg has attacked Philip Hammond’s Treasury and helped pushed Theresa May into ruling out membership of any customs union post-Brexit.
On Tuesday morning the leading pro-European Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry expressed her dismay at the group’s influence. “It feels like – and I think there’s evidence to support this – Theresa is in hock to these 35 hard Brexiteers,” she said, in a clear allusion to the ERG. “They don’t represent my party, but more importantly they don’t represent people who voted leave.”
She had made a similar case on Monday night, telling Newsnight: “Unless Theresa stands up and sees off these people she is in real danger of losing huge swathes of not just the parliamentary party but the Conservative party.”
Now the Labour party has complained about the way it operates, saying that it is in breach of parliamentary rules in the way it uses public funds, which are supposed to support MPs with objective research rather than promoting partisan ends.
The ERG’s funds are allocated by a group of Conservative MPs. They pay £2,000 a year from their taxpayer-funded expenses to fund a researcher, who pushes out private briefing notes. It also shares information and lines to take in media appearances via a closed WhatsApp group, now the principal way to organise a clique of MPs.
The number of MPs who back it financially amount to 20 to 25 a year, producing an income of a little short of £50,000, according to publicly available expenses records. But its true number of supporters is often thought to be larger.
While Soubry’s estimate of the faction is 35, one former MP and ERG member, Michael, now Lord Spicer, says there are 50 adherents, amounting to what he described as “a powerful parliamentary voting factor”.
Analysis of the figures showed that 53 Tory MPs have paid subscriptions to the group since the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority system of recording began in 2010. The group was given a renewed dynamism when Steve Baker took over as chair in 2016, relaunching it with younger MPs becoming more prominent.
Rees-Mogg is among those who have paid in every year, but other current cabinet ministers who have taken out a subscription include Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Sajid Javid, David Davis and Penny Mordaunt. Its most recent chair, Suella Fernandes, was promoted in the recent reshuffle and sits alongside Baker as a Brexit minister.
A fortnight ago, the ERG released a speech given by Rees-Mogg, given at Churcher’s College, Petersfield, complete with a summary of key passages for journalists, demonstrating how it hoped to influence the political agenda.
Key passages were pulled out under headlines such as “The government’s tone on Brexit needs to fundamentally change”, “Close alignment [with the EU after Brexit] is unacceptable” and “The UK cannot stay in the Customs Union.” A week later following those positions were formally adopted by No 10.
A key example of how the ERG tries to shape events came last week when Rees-Mogg directed what appeared to be a planted question at Baker during Brexit questions.
He asked the junior minister to “confirm that he heard from Charles Grant of the pro-EU Centre for European Research that officials in the Treasury have deliberately developed a model to show that all options other than staying in the customs union are bad, and that officials intend to use the model to influence policy?”
Baker agreed with Rees-Mogg, although their effort to renew their attack on economic officials backfired when, but a recording emerged to show that supposed source, Grant had not said the Treasury had developed such a model, instead making the more basic claim that the Treasury was determined to stay in the customs union.
Jon Trickett, the shadow minister for the cabinet office, has written to the expenses watchdog, Ipsa, accusing the “secretive and entirely politically biased group” of misusing public money because it has what he said was its own whipping system to attack Labour and undermine government ministers.
Ipsa has investigated the ERG before and has concluded that although unusual, it is careful to operate within the rules. The expenses watchdog said that the briefing notes it had seen were “not emotively phrased” and therefore legitimate because they were factual in tone rather than political.
Labour’s argument is that the activities of its chairs show a deeper intent to cause trouble in the Commons. “Jacob Rees-Mogg is pushing a rightwing Tory agenda while using his position as a platform for his political scheming,” Trickett said.
Ipsa has yet to respond to Trickett’s letter. The ERG did not respond to a request for comment.