March 29th last year was, of course, the date that Brexit was supposed to take place. A delay was agreed but March 29th still saw a significant event take place. MPs voted, for a third time, on the Withdrawal Agreement that Theresa May had negotiated. It was voted down by a majority of 58 – a clear margin but much closer than earlier votes. Those who are usually credited – or blamed according to taste – for that Government defeat are the “Spartans”, those Conservative MPs in the European Research Group who refused to back down. There were 34 Conservative MPs who voted against the Government on that occasion – so the simple maths are that had they voted the other way the Agreement would have passed by ten votes. However, not all those 34 MPs were Spartans. They included six uncompromising Remainers – Guto Bebb, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, Sam Gyimah, Jo Johnson and Phillip Lee. So even if only the Spartans had switched then the Government would have still lost. However, the implications of the Spartan resistance went beyond the Parliamentary arithmetic.
It was a very difficult time for Brexiteers. Those who voted with the Government included Boris Johnson (who had previously said the deal was “vassal state stuff”), Jacob Rees-Mogg (who said it was “not so much a vassal state but a slave state”), David Davis (a “terrible deal”) and Iain Duncan Smith (who had said May’s deal was “the final deceit”). Some of them had argued that a “Brexit In Name Only” would be worse than no Brexit at all. The logic was that as EU members there was a mechanism for leaving, while with May’s deal we would have been permanently trapped following EU rules. But they changed their minds., they “folded”. The decision they reached was that, after all, any Brexit was better than no Brexit. It was very painful for them.
It wasn’t easy for the Spartans either. Some of their friends and allies not merely disagreed but did so in emphatic even abusive terms. A constant refrain was: Could they not say how stupid they were being? The warning was not only that they would scupper Brexit but usher in a Corbyn Government. Yet they held firm – including Priti Patel and Suella Braverman. Some, such as Mark Francois were pretty gung-ho about it. Most of the others agonised. Among them was Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe and Chairman of the ERG. He says:
“Was the path clear? No. It was a huge gamble but we knew it was a huge gamble. Dominic Cummings told us we were Remain’s ‘useful idiots’ and we knew we weren’t. We knew we needed a new Prime Minister and a new mandate but we just were not clear how we would achieve it. I had to watch David Davis, Boris Johnson – both of whom I’d resigned over Chequers with – Jacob and Dom Raab – some of my closest allies and friends fold and vote for the deal. It was awful. Just bringing it back I feel sick thinking about it.”
When Baker spoke to an ERG meeting his passion had great impact. “What is our liberty for if not to govern ourselves?” he asked.
Most Brexiteers would now conclude that Baker and his allies were vindicated. Some in the DUP may regret not backing May’s deal, with the concern that Johnson’s alternative will mean a regulatory border down the Irish Sea. Others may feel that just because a gamble paid off doesn’t mean it was right to take it. It is true that the past year would have been hard to predict. The rise of the Brexit Party helped to nudge the Conservatives to replace May with Johnson. Then the fall of the Brexit Party allowed Johnson to defeat Corbyn. The EU agreed to allow Johnson a better deal – despite repeated claims that to do so would be “impossible”. Then the Remainer MPs cause the public to lose patience by refusing to accept the deal and then, for some weeks, blocking a General Election.
Baker could not have known all this would happen. Yet while his Ministerial office has been brief and at a junior level, he has had a greater impact on events than many of his more senior. Now he has put down his spear. His letter of resignation as Chairman of the ERG is below. We wish him well in his future challenges. What he has already accomplished is of great significance.