Earlier this week, the European Research Group, headed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, delivered a letter to Downing Street signed by 62 MPs, demanding that the UK should not be stopped from negotiating trade deals with other countries and gain full “regulatory autonomy” once we leave the EU. The taxpayer funded ERG is a small but influential gang of Brexit MPs who want Leave delivered whatever the cost. May is clearly a bit worried about them and thus responded to the note by inviting Mogg and a cluster of Brexiteers into Downing Street.
There are currently 650 Members of Parliament of whom 315 are Tory MPs. In any other circumstances a letter such as this would probably be ignored, but because of May’s precarious working majority, this very small but potentially damaging group of 62, feels it can dictate the course of the Leave negotiations and thus the destinies of 65 million others.
So who are they all? I’ve spent the last 24 hours looking at these ERG signatories, analysing some common threads and asking – is this really about sovereignty? Is this really about ‘democracy’?And – who exactly is taking back control?
Let’s start with ERG Chairman, 48 year old multi-millionaire Old Etonian Jacob Rees-Mogg. He might be best known for his Lord Snooty tribute act, but beneath the posh suits lurks a very un-cuddly backward-looking patrician Tory. When not posing with Bagpuss, Jacob is one of the richest members of the Houses of Parliament. Indeed, he earns considerably more than the Prime Minister thanks to his ‘extra curricula activities’ at Somerset Capital Management whose emerging markets activities will no doubt benefit from Brexit. Estimates suggest Mogg netted at least £4 million during his 7 years as an MP on top of his £74k parliamentary salary. Behind the charming veneer, Jacob has genuinely deplorable views, believing that rape victims shouldn’t have abortions, that food banks are uplifting, that the human rights act should be ditched and that gay marriage is wrong. While Mogg has long wanted to ‘get back control’ he happily admits that he himself takes his orders from Rome; with a clear majority of voters in North East Somerset backing Remain – the concerns of his constituents are clearly the very last thing on his mind.
Mogg is just one of the 32 (51%) of ex-public school alumni on a list that is overwhelmingly white, wealthy and male. 32% (19) of the signatories went to Oxford or Cambridge, just 16% are women and of those – 20% are called Anne-Marie. (Among all MPs – 29% went to private schools and 25% to Oxbridge. Source C4.)
The list is stuffed with the names of old style, aristocratic Tory fat cats such as “Sir Henry Bellingham” a descendent of Spencer Perceval’s assassin John Bellingham. Old Etonian ‘Henners’ fills in the time between representing his constituents by earning £108,000 per year, working just seven hours a month, for a mining company and when not doing that ‘Busy Bellingham’ is doing his other jobs as a senior advisor to a posh fund management company and as a non-executive Director of Developing Market Associates. Does this sound like the CV of a latter day Che Guevara, liberating the nation from the clutches of globalist corporate interests?
Working further down through the names, it is bewildering just how many of these hard working parliamentarian patriots find time for ‘second jobs.’ In between trying to stop the repeal of Section 28, pulling the UK out of the EU and striving for a decade to reintroduce the death penalty, Mr Bean tribute act John Redwood, for example has managed to ‘top up’ his MP salary by £200k a year as Chief Global Strategist at Charles Stanley and Co. John may be an ardent Brextremist but he’s an even more diligent corporate strategist and last year advised his clients to move their money out of Britain – because of Brexit. We may have been told that Brexit will be nothing but good by John Redwood himself – but perhaps that’s because we don’t pay him enough.
But Brexit is much more than mere financial details, isn’t it. It’s about getting the nation back on track. It’s about Sovereignty. It’s about engaging with the rest of the world – about being progressive and forward thinking and distancing ourselves from the ‘old ways.’
Odd then, that there are so many MPs on the list who are so keen to espouse what might best be termed ‘Extreme Victorian values’. Take Peter “funny” Bone who has long been preoccupied with others’ sex lives and in particular whether gay couples should marry. Peter believed ‘the people’ should decide on the issue of LGBT rights and was keen to invoke his wife, Mrs Bone’s views on all manner of matters of morality….. right up to the point when he dumped her for a model 20 years his junior. The Boner has been ‘entertaining’ his new girlfriend at his luxury £1.5 million taxpayer funded home ever since. Taking back control was never easier!
Peter incidentally believes that Brexit will be a boost for Britain and in particular the humble British worker. Pin Prick wonders if this Peter Bone is in any way related to the one who was once dubbed “Britain’s meanest boss” after paying an employee just 87p an hour.
But we are already half-way in and have barely troubled the tip of the ‘62’ iceberg – so let’s quickly run through some of the supporting cast: there’s lovely James Gray MP who is so keen to leave things that he dumped his wife while she was undergoing breast cancer treatment and ran off with another woman. There’s the aptly named ‘man of the people’ Philip Hollobone who wants to reintroduce National Service and who recently talked out a Bill that would protect the NHS from privatisation. There’s Old Harrovian Richard Grosvenor Plunkett Ernle-Erle-Drax Lord of the Manor of Longburton. There’s Lucy Allen who lives with her millionaire stockbroker husband in a Wandsworth mansion a full 160 miles from her Telford constituency. You may remember Lucy, incidentally, as the lovely MP who sacked an employee for taking sick leave (more of that to come post-Brexit) and was accused of aggressive and bullying behaviour by two others. There’s Bob Blackman who distinguished himself by talking openly about his moral opposition to same sex marriage – only to be called out by his secret mistress of 10 years standing. There’s Andrew Bridgen who thinks ordinary people are ‘put off’ becoming MPs by the paltry salary and who has thus taken matter into his own hands, got on his bike and gone off to work for the family firm for £93,276 pa for just 6 hours a week. Multi-millionaire Andy sold his £2million mansion to you and me the taxpayer (wasn’t that generous of us, do you remember) in 2015 under the HS2 ‘hardship scheme’ – because he was getting divorced. He took back control and we took back his home.
There’s David Jones MP, who outshone everyone in 2013, by charging the taxpayer to take a chauffeur driven Jaguar on a 100 metre ride.
There’s Andrew Rosindell of the Monday Club (flags division) who has dedicated much of his parliamentary career to trying to get a dedicated queue at Heathrow for people who come from other countries that have the Queen as their head of state. Oh and of course, there’s lovely Philip Davies who has busied himself about the Commons blocking bills he doesn’t like, by ‘talking them out.’ Free hospital parking for carers of seriously ill patients? BLOCKED. First aid provision in schools? BLOCKED. Phil was so busy blocking bills that in 2013 he neglected to mention that he had received £10,000 in ‘benefits’ from the gambling industry.
There’s Priti Patel, former ‘big tobacco’ PR supremo who was sacked…. Sorry who resigned for lying. And lovely Anne-Marie Trevelyan who voted against smoking bans, voted against LGBT rights, voted against laws to promote equality and human rights – and voted consistently for tax cuts for the rich and better provision for private patients in the NHS. The ‘other’ Anne-Marie (Morris) who has been an MP since 2010 is remembered mostly for that one appearance when she dismissed the threat of leaving the EU with no deal as a “n**ger in the woodpile.” She promptly lost the whip – but don’t worry they gave it back to her in the end.
These MPs may be fighting to take back control, but one has to question who exactly they are taking it back for. This question is perhaps most pertinent for the MPs on the list, who represent Remain constituencies. Step forward Matthew Offord, Bob Blackman, Jacob Rees-Mogg (again) Giacomo ‘Jack’ Lopresti, ‘Mad’ Bob Stewart, Stephen Kerr, Colin Clark, Iain Duncan Smith and John Redwood (again)
There is a remarkable and largely homogenous commonality of views between these Brexit backers that could best be described as ‘anti-NHS, anti-tax, anti-regulation, traditionalist, monarchist, anti-poor people, vigorously pro-wealth and very, very right wing.’ A clear majority have opposed any reform of the unelected House of Lords. A clear majority oppose LGBT rights. Most Britons and even most Conservative and UKIP member support same sex marriages – but most of these MPs (65%) have either voted consistently against LGBT rights and weddings or spoken fiercely against them. The bulk of those who were there for the Same Sex Couples Act of 2013, voted against. Nobody on the list supported Yes in the AV referendum or has spoken vocally in support of any change to our voting system, putting to bed the lie that Brexit is somehow about ‘the people’ being given autonomy or more democracy.
From where the ERG is standing at least, it’s clearly about vested interests and old style Conservative values. In short – a power grab. And perhaps that extends well beyond the 62, for as has been pointed out by Matthew Holehouse among others, there is something rather peculiar about the document. While almost none of the signatories have a legal or trade expertise background, the letter itself is very, very specific in its demands. Indeed I would challenge most people to understand it without a ‘translation’. Have all the 62 members of the ERG actually comprehended what they have put their names to? There are rumours, allegedly emanating from Downing Street that the influential and rather shady Legatum Institute, at the heart of hard Brexit, may have played a role in its drafting. The funding of the Legatum Institute, which is owned by a Dubai Hedge Fund, remains somewhat shrouded in mystery and most people still have not heard of it – but if the Institute is indeed behind this letter then there are vested interests at surreptitious play and frankly we – the people – should know.
Because remember – this is supposed to be about our country and us taking back control, but it would seem that handing that ‘control’ to the ordinary British subject is the very last thing on the ERG agenda. These true believers of Brexit and their fellow travellers on the old right – may pretend they are working to deliver what the ‘people wanted’ – but all the time, they are very much aware, that it is now ‘their’ agenda and because of May’s weakness they have the power to deliver it. The ERG Tory signatories represent just 19% of the Conservative parliamentary party and just 9% of all elected MPs but they have decided that they have a mandate and that this is ‘their’ prize and it would seem that the lacklustre Mrs May is too weak or gutless to stop them.
This is no longer a process – it’s a coup – and it flies in the face of the interests of the vast majority of British people on both sides of the Brexit divide.