Last night in parliament, irony died, and perhaps with it the chance of any Brexit deal being accepted by enough of Theresa May’s threadbare majority.
In a bizarre turn of events, the Prime Minister, weakened by nine resignations in eight days orchestrated by shadowy Tory ‘government within a government’ the ERG (plus one resignation of a key ally over sending filthy texts to constituents) was forced to “cave in” and not only accept ERG amendments that made her Brexit White Paper illegal, but whip her party into voting against the Chequers agreement that just 11 days before had been hailed as thrashing out a common Brexit approach that the Conservative Party could finally agree on after two years of bickering and just months to negotiate such an agreement with the EU’s 27 states.
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Theresa May managed to cling onto power by the skin of her teeth after narrowly winning the votes on the amendments she had been forced to make, losing a minister in the process.
Defence minister Guto Bebb is perhaps the first minister ever to have to resign in order to vote against the Government in support of its White Paper.
Theresa May insisted that the amendments “do not change that Chequers agreement”, adding: “I would not have gone through all the work I did to ensure that we reached that agreement only to see it changed in some way through these bills.”
Theresa May’s insistence made no sense whatsoever as one of the ERG amendments tabled by disgraced former Cabinet minister Priti Patel was dubbed a “wrecking amendment” to Theresa May’s plans, as it demanded plans to collect tariffs on behalf of the EU would be dropped unless every single EU member state agrees to do so in reverse. – Ultimately unworkable and designed to kill the PM’s controversial facilitated customs agreement, which in turn wrecks the possibility of the Northern Ireland peace agreement’s soft border.
One of Patel’s Conservative colleagues – and one of the rebels voting against the ERG rebels’ changes to the Government’s Brexit position of the week before – Heidi Allen vowed she would “never give ERG my backing so will vote against their two wrecking amendments which fundamentally undermine the Chequers proposal and our PM”.
The ERG had undermined the Chequers agreement’s pretense of Tory unity and made a mockery of the Brexit White Paper that it had taken Theresa May’s government two years to finally unveil. All amid reports that the ERG had their own shadowy whips contacting Conservative MPs on behalf of the ERG as part of a shadow whipping exercise to get them to tow the Government line.
But the ERG’s kamikaze behaviour enraged many formerly loyal Tory MPs, such as Guto Bebb, Richard Benyon, Mark Pawsey – MPs so loyal most people haven’t even heard of them – so much so that they abandoned their government to vote against Theresa May and for her original plan.
In a turnaround that will shock many Labour voters, Theresa May’s shambolic government won these votes by just three votes, kept in power by three Labour MP’s: Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer who voted WITH the government to keep it limping on another day with little or no chance of delivering the actual Brexit that the three Labour MPs support.
Many Labour Party supporters – especially Kate Hoey’s Remain-voting constituents expressed their disbelief that the three MP’s – seen here conferring with an ERG Tory during the vote apparently forgot which side they were meant to vote with during the division bell.
And a picture tells a thousand words – effective ERG Brexiter whip recently resigned Brexit minister Steve Baker confers with the Labour MPs who brought victory – Field and Hoey pic.twitter.com/ggZ2ozKtZQ
— Faisal Islam (@faisalislam) July 16, 2018
Perhaps even more farcically, the Liberal Democrats – whose sole reason for still existing now is surely their opposition to Brexit – missed their historic opportunity to bring down Theresa May’s government now held fully hostage by the ERG Brextremists.
After championing the Remain cause for the past two years, Vince Cable and Tim Farron didn’t even bother to turn up to Parliament last night.
So now not only has Jeremy Corbyn tabled a motion to keep the UK in the Customs Union which the most vocal Tory Remainers Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve voted against.
But now in an even more farcical turn of events, the most vocal Remain LibDems bunked off their one (and most probably only ever) chance to make a difference.
Perhaps Vince Cable had a headache.
Tim Farron’s excuse was truly startling – he missed the crucial chance to stop a no-deal Brexit to give a talk titled “the death of Liberalism.” – You couldn’t make it up.
The former LibDem leader who surrendered leadership to Vince Cable after blurting out that gay sex was incompatible with his Christian faith, actually appeared to be bunking off the Brexit vote to give another talk about it all at Sherbourne Abbey.
Last week the LibDems shamefully brought a motion to get in to Government with the Tories, and last night they actually let Theresa May destroy her own Brexit White Paper, forced by Brexit rebels to whip loyal MPs into voting for amendments that made their Government’s Brexit policies illegal.
Tim Farron missed the Customs Bill vote because he was speaking at one of his homophobia meetings. pic.twitter.com/0dW4nFs3JT
— McCats (@FeralMcCats) July 16, 2018
Labour MP Gareth Thomas said: “Accepting the ERG amendments means sticking two fingers up to the EU’s negotiators and that Dominic Raab has effectively been replaced as Britain’s chief negotiator by Jacob Rees Mogg, because he’s the one pulling all the strings and determining Government strategy.”
He told Politics Home: “The EU27 may remain polite but they can read the signals just as well as the rest of us: the Brextremists are now in charge.
“We have just taken a step closer to the catastrophe of a no deal Brexit being forced on us by a combination of Government paralysis and Parliamentary confusion.”
“So a government minister is forced to resign tonight in order to vote for government’s own white paper,” tweeted Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston. “PM may be in Office but it seems the ERG is in power.”
So who are the shadowy Brextremist government within the government?
The European Research Group (ERG) is ostensibly a publicly funded research support group for the Conservative Party.
It is perhaps best known for being funded by taxpayer’s money via at least 40 Tory MPs’ expenses for “research” despite having a secret Brexit-promoting membership.
That and being chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg and currently appearing to hold the government hostage over its Brexit plans.
Its members are reported to organize their own right wing Hard Brexit party within the Tory Party coordinated with a Whats App group, and they have their own shadow whips to get Tory MPs to tow their line.
— Guido Fawkes (@GuidoFawkes) July 10, 2018
Many Tory right-wingers with ERG links also have links to the fossil fuel lobby and global warming denial.
The ERG was created in 1993 by Sir Michael Spicer, then Tory MP for West Worcestershire, after the Maastricht Treaty. The group worked with other Eurosceptic groups such as the Referendum Party and Ukip. Douglas Carswell who went on to become Ukip’s one and only MP was a former member.
Leading up to the EU referendum, ten members of ERG were officially working at Vote Leave: Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Liam Fox, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, John Whittingdale, Ann-Marie Trevelyan, Bernard Jenkin, Steve Baker and Douglas Carswell.
The ERG doesn’t publish membership details or accounts, but from records of Parliamentary expenses and various reports there are around 60 -70 Tory MPs associated with the secretive lobbying group.
The ERG, like the rest of the Leave campaign has been slammed for a lack of transparency over its funding, especially its use of tax payers’ money. Labour MPs called for an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) inquiry, after a damning report by openDemocracy found that “despite expenses rules stating that MPs cannot claim for research or work “done for, or on behalf of, a political party”, the European Research Group has received over a quarter of a million pounds from MPs who claimed the public cash through their official expenses.”
Andrea Leadsom, Sajid Javid, Liam Fox, Chris Grayling, all high-profile Brexiteers had each claimed thousands of pounds for ERG research.
The report also found that Jacob Rees-Mogg’s staff insisted “he had claimed no money through his expenses for the group. However his filed accounts state he claimed almost £10,000 for ERG research.”
In addition to public funding for the service the group also receives donations. These are far from transparent.
Steve Baker who resigned last week from the Department for Exiting the European Union as part of a series of resignations co-ordinated by the ERG to undermine Theresa May’s Chequers agreement has been briefing ever since that the PM has a “cloak and dagger” plot to foil Brexit.
Baker was also an ERG chair and received money from the secretive Constitutional Research Council: the same opaque organization that has been revealed to have a conduit for a mysterious £435,000 channelled to the DUP and into Brexit adverts across Britain during the EU referendum. Both the DUP and CRC refuse to reveal where the money came from.
There are reports emerging of a current spike in people joining the Conservative Party – which could be preparations for an attempt to install a more Brextremist leader than Theresa May. Without that the ERG will never have a majority in the party.
Whether Remainer Tory MPs will let the ERG’s gradual coup continue or will rebel and vote for a full Customs Union to be maintained remains to be seen. If they do the Tory civil war over Brexit is about to get bloody.
Either way with just months left to negotiate a Brexit and years squandered by in-fighting, the other 27 EU member states must be staring in disbelief at the government they are meant to be negotiating with.