Why the Conservative Party still can’t break free from the ERG

How the factional tides turn — and how quickly. Just a short six months ago, the European Research Group (ERG) of eurosceptic, backbench Conservative MPs was considered a mere Brexit hangover, a shell — utterly enervated after years of rebellion and months of consecutive governments awarding its leading lights with ministerial briefs. 

Having fallen on hard times after Boris Johnson finally “got Brexit done” in 2020, the clearest signal of the ERG’s new beleaguered existence came with the recent House of Commons vote on the so-called “Windsor Framework”. The ERG’s “star chamber” of assembled lawyers had declared Rishi Sunak’s solution to the sticky Norther Ireland Protocol problem “practically useless”. But few were listening. 

For weeks the ERG had conjured the prospect of a Brexit rebellion of yore, but when the commons divided on 22 March the old “spartan” gang could at best usher a mere 22 colleagues into the “No” lobby. Included among their number were Liz Truss and Boris Johnson — the latter grateful to be excused from his “partygate” grilling to indulge in this final Brexit wheeze. 

This “no” lobby, it was roundly judged, provided a snapshot of the dispossessed and discontented in the modern-day Conservative Party — a pro-Brexit rump rabbled, ostensibly, by the Windsor Framework, but united, actually, by their lack of political promise. 

A Spectator column surmised the prevailing SW1 consensus: “The remarkable fall of the once-mighty ERG”, it held. 

What is more, the ERG’s framework misfire came just months after the grouping proved unable to endorse a candidate in the October 2022 leadership election. As its membership split variously into Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s camps, ERG chair Mark Francois issued a statement in lieu of a statement. “We were unable to collectively endorse either candidate”, he sighed. 

But, still, the political humiliations flowed thick and fast for the ERG. In May this year, the grouping’s decries were once more dismissed as the government watered down its so-called “bonfire” of EU legislation. “Secretary of state, what on earth are you playing at?”, ERG chair Mark Francois thundered. Kemi Badenoch could not give him the “purist” answer he so craved. 

Week-in-Review: A reckoning for the Brexit ‘bonfire’, and for Kemi Badenoch

Indeed, that Francois emerged as grouping chair last year might, in some readings, be viewed as illustrative of the ERG’s enduring travails. With pro-Brexit bastions such as Steve Baker, Suella Braverman and Chris Heaton-Harris absorbed into Rishi Sunak’s regime, the ERG has long been denied some of its most outspoken advocates by the PM.

But with the return of bitter Conservative infighting over the government’s new Rwanda bill, so too does the ERG march, once more, to the fore. And with factional torches relit and pitchforks raised, Francois’ few now look set to stare down Rishi Sunak over his plan to implement the still-unimplemented Rwanda plan.

Cue a classic sop from Sunak as he — in the wake of Robert Jenrick’s resignation — apportioned the new post of illegal migration minister to Michael Tomlinson, a former ERG deputy chairman. That this tried and tested gambit has failed to stem Sunak’s enduring travails may, itself, be highly revealing of how far the debate has shifted since March.

For factionalism — as it is practised by the ERG — is something of a performance art. And having carefully stewarded rebellions of Brexit yore with a savvy shadow whipping operation, the ERG has resolved that its old colourful gambits are needed once more. 

With its Brexit instincts kicking in, therefore, the group last week resurrected its “star chamber” of expert lawyers to pore over the new Rwanda bill and issue a judgment. In turn, journalists were herded into a cramped corridor yesterday as the ERG faithful disappeared for a full 45 minutes to conclude its deliberations. 

Upon emerging, ERGers brandished press releases for assembled hacks. The note was singularly unsparing. Sunak’s legislation was deemed a “partial and incomplete solution” to the Rwanda plan impasse, as the star chamber raised the spectre of “numerous” legal challenges with a “high rate of success” further delaying the deportation scheme. 

Conservative grandees issue warning to Rwanda rebels: do not ‘wreck’ Sunak’s government

Next, with the 10-page legal verdict of Sir Bill Cash and co. lumbered online, Mark Francois, breathlessly, expressed his hope that Sunak would “pull the legislation and come back with something that is fit for purpose”. 

It simply has “so many holes in it”, the ERG chief lamented

Then, yesterday evening at 6 pm, a constellation of Conservative right caucuses met in another committee room to discuss a potential pathway forward, with the foundation provided by the ERG’s “star chamber” ruling. To coordinate their criticisms better still — and with the voting lobby doors gaping — another meeting will be held at 5 pm today.

This collection of Conservative right factions, it is reported, like to refer to themselves as the “five families” — a reference to the leading mafia dynasties that operate in New York City. But of these “families”, it is the ERG’s legal and political acumen, as well as its resources, that are being leaned on most in this latest instance of Conservative infighting. 

In fact, the very existence of the “New Conservatives”, the “Common Sense Group”, the “Conservative Growth Group” and the “Northern Research Group” speaks to the ERG’s enduring political legacy. As Sunak’s abbreviated antagonists amass, there can be no doubt that it was the ERG who blazed the trail for its connected copycat caucuses. 

Thus, the grandaddy of anti-government grifting stands tall once more. It underlines that the myriad reports of the ERG’s death — filed earlier this year — were after all greatly exaggerated. 

Indeed, with Labour planning to vote against the new Rwanda bill at its second reading in the commons this evening, only 57 Conservative MPs need to abstain, or 29 to vote against the government, for the government to be defeated. A second reading is usually a formality — but thanks in part to the ERG’s recent activism there is the genuine prospect that Sunak could be the first PM to be defeated at this stage since 1986.

A final breakdown, if you will: 29 Conservative rebels, all else being equal, are needed to defeat the bill; the ERG, not to mention its factional off-shoots, numbers around 30-strong; and, at the Windsor Framework vote in March (with the ERG’s at a low ebb), 22 Conservative MPs skulked into the “No” lobby.

Now, Rishi Sunak likes his maths. But these numbers are deeply foreboding — if not for the bill’s “second reading”, then certainly for future readings of the bill. And in the PM’s burgeoning tumult, the ERG has featured centrally — and will continue to feature centrally, for some time to come.

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Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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