Story by Peter Geoghegan, Jenna Corderoy and James Cusick
A group of pro-Brexit Tory MPs led by Jacob Rees-Mogg were spoon-fed questions intended to undermine their own government, according to newly revealed documents.
The European Research Group (ERG) encouraged its members to wrong-foot the prime minister and senior ministers on everything from control of migration to trade deals and EU laws in briefings obtained after a court battle.
The questions, usually accompanied by “superficial” research, were expected to be deployed against the Tory government. Details of the ERG’s inner workings were revealed after openDemocracy fought a successful legal battle with the spending watchdog, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).
The European Research Group received hundreds of thousands of pounds in taxpayers’ money over the last four years. The ERG’s work, claimed as part of MPs’ pooled resources, is supposed to be research that is politically neutral, essentially not for party political purposes.
IPSA carried out a limited examination of the ERG’s output and found it “factual and informative”. But trade experts who reviewed the material dismissed the ERG’s output as “superficial and selective” and “highly partisan”.
The ERG has been instrumental in forcing Boris Johnson to push for a no deal Brexit. Conservative MPs who are not involved in the ERG said that the group operates as a party within a party and that taxpayers’ money should be returned.
None of the output reaches the level of analysis or research of any research report I've seen from an academic, NGO or think tank Steve Peers, professor of European law at the University of Essex
The ERG, previously headed by former Brexit ministers Steve Baker and Suella Braverman, keeps its ‘research’ private and refuses to publish names of its members.
It is believed that between sixty and eighty Tory MPs are, or have been, ERG members. They have been accused of holding the prime minister hostage in key votes in the Commons and of forcing their own Brexit plans on Downing Street.
However, IPSA was forced to hand over the sample of ERG material it had examined, shows that far from being neutral the ‘research’ is highly party-political and that the group operates with a disruptive political agenda.
Steve Peers, professor of European law at the University of Essex, said the ERG’s research was “highly partial” and “often flawed by basic misunderstandings or omissions”.
“None of the output reaches the level of analysis or research of any research report I’ve seen from an academic, NGO or think tank,” Peers added.
David Henig, director of the UK Trade Policy Project at the European Centre for International Political Economy think tank, described the research as “superficial and selective”.
Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake said that the materials released in the wake of openDemocracy’s court victory showed that the ERG “will stop at nothing to ensure the next prime minister drags the UK out of the EU without a deal”.
Party within a party
In one paper, called ‘Brexit and the Queen’s Speech’, ERG MPs are told that whenever World Trade Organization rules are mentioned, they should refer to an answer compiled by the Legatum Institute, a pro-Brexit think tank. The instructed response states: “The WTO confers rights on the UK as we leave the EU such that, if the EU operates in ways that damage our trade, we can bring cases against it.”
When the ERG produced the trade paper, Shanker Singham, an influential former Washington lobbyist, was working for Legatum. Last year the Charity Commission ruled that Legatum’s work on Brexit “failed to meet the required standard of balance and neutrality”.
Singham, who now works for the Institute for Economic Affairs, a free-market think tank, has enjoyed unparalleled access to key government figures including Boris Johnson. An IEA free-trade plan written by Singham, which claimed the UK could be a £1 trillion better off outside the EU, was given an “A+ for idiocy” by The Guardian.
Public money is being used to pay for this disruptive, often ill-informed dross. Conservative backbench MP
Peers said that the ERG “paper on trade and the WTO suffers from some exceptionally basic errors of fact, which are unfortunately used as the basis for unfounded claims that could, if policy was based on them, significantly damage UK exporters”.
A Tory backbencher shown the ERG research said that “if you needed proof that the ERG was a party within a party, this is it.
“This is the group that has encouraged many of the myths and fantasies about a hard and no-deal Brexit that are still influencing the policies likely to be road-tested by Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but public money is being used to pay for this disruptive, often ill-informed dross.”
Spoon-fed talking points
The limited cache examined by IPSA reveals policy “lines to take” for ERG members, “possible questions” to ask ministers, and breakdowns of ministerial statements that in many cases accuse the government of masking Brexit’s “facts”.
ERG MPs were also given interpretations of key reports. These include a 2016 CBI report on the implications of Brexit which says 950,000 jobs could be lost by 2020, which was dismissed as a false forecast.
In a line that mirrors other anti-migrant rhetoric , the ERG research claimed “950,000 jobs are not lost” but rather these would be employment reductions in a post-Brexit UK economy because new jobs would no longer be created for EU migrants.
The CBI report estimated a post-Brexit GDP loss of between “£55 bn-£100bn by 2020”. ERG MPs were told the figure is simply a hypothetical “loss” based on a smaller population.
MPs attending debates were furnished with ERG “notes” questioning government facts which are described variously as “selective statistic picking” and “old rogue statistics”. The government was frequently accused of failing to “address the positives” and “distorting statistics”. On EU crime cooperation, the ERG said that the “Charter of Fundamental Rights makes it impossible to keep some undesirables out”.
Prior to the 2016 referendum, ERG MPs were spoon-fed lists of questions for key government departments. MPs were told to ask questions on Foreign Office impartiality and whether Philip Hammond, then foreign secretary, believed the UK’s membership helped or hindered the UK in striking trade deals.
Questions on migration from Turkey, one of the key fears stoked by Leave campaigners during the referendum, are also suggested as a target. ERG members are told to ask Hammond if he “supports” Turkish accession to the EU, a move that few in Brussels think is likely to happen. ERG MPs were told they should quiz the Foreign Office on whether Turkish citizens should have Schengen visas and whether they should have automatic access to the UK.
In another 2016 ERG guide, MPs were encouraged to ask Theresa May, then home secretary, about Turkey, “free movement” for 80 million Turks and EU’s ability to negotiate a refugee deal with Turkey.
Does the Secretary of State agree that were Turkey to join the EU giving free movement rights to 80 million Turks would damage not only the UK's labour market but our security as well? A European Research group question
A suggested list of questions for Home Office questions includes demands that the “true scale” of inward migration should be released.
One former Whitehall official, now working in an international think-tank, said “There is nothing new in questioning a government’s plans. This is often the job of the opposition. However the ERG seem to have taken on that role, operating not within the Conservative Party, but as a different, separate, anti-Europe party. There is no grey area: all is either EU bad or UK good. For £300,000 their ‘research’ should be thorough: instead there are long lists of statements of the obvious.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake said: “Anyone who still believes that the ERG is little more than an innocent organisation providing briefings is delusional. These rushed papers are clearly a front for something far more sinister, a well-whipped and organised party within a party, which will stop at nothing to ensure the next prime minister drags the UK out of the EU without a deal.
“Any prime minister who panders to them isn’t fit to hold office.”
From the 2016 ERG files examined by IPSA there is a warning on the deal David Cameron made with Brussels ahead of the referendum. It states: “The first thing to note is that these measures [in Cameron’s deal] will not reduce migration – a serious flaw.”
Beyond the ‘fortune-cookie’ summaries there is scare-mongering. ERG MPs are given lists of the government’s “false claims” that should be deployed in debates on immigration. These include claims on welfare for immigrants, under-reporting of migration, UK jobs linked to exports to the EU, and predicted economic shocks as a result of Brexit.
On an evaluation that leaving the EU could result in “a decade or more of uncertainty”, ERG MPs are told that this is false because “Greenland left the EU in less than three years”. The population of Greenland is 56,000, roughly the same as the town of Kidderminster.
Other analysis from the ERG states: “There are great new opportunities for UK trade outside of the EU,” and “The WTO provides a framework to allow trade to continue preventing a ‘cliff edge’”. Trade experts have described this as a misreading of WTO rules. But the same talking point is currently being cited by Boris Johnson as a route to take in a no deal Brexit.
Senior ERG members were approached for comment but have not responded.
All the European Research Group documents given to IPSA and revealed after openDemocracy’s successful court case can be accessed here. This story was originally published by openDemocracy on 22 July, 2019.