The European Research Group (ERG)
Formed around 1994 the European Research Group (ERG) only came to public prominence in 2017 as a pressure group within the Tory party when it sent a letter to Theresa May warning her against signing a transitional deal with the EU keeping the UK in the single market.
In a follow up soon after the group’s chairperson Suella Braverman, then a junior government aide, (since appointed Attorney General by Boris Johnson) appeared on television and said: “justice must be done to Brexit. No deal is better than a bad deal.”
The political intervention in matters of state by the previously little known group caused consternation in political circles and investigative journalists gave attention to unmasking its membership and political history. What they unearthed was a group of hardliners, including a number of government ministers who had created a party within a party.
Adding insult to injury it was identified that because the group’s purpose was political research it had been funded by taxpayers through a mechanism that allowed contributing MP’s to reclaim donations as an expense. Members were required to pay an annual membership fee of around £2,000 each year. It is estimated that the partisan pressure group varied in strength over the years but forty would be an appropriate figure providing a total income of £2.20 million.
Incredulously the public purse unknowingly underwrote the ERG’s fictitious research for years. The taxpayer funding was crucial to the ERG’s success since it paid for the staff that moulded it into a well-drilled political force dedicated to leaving the European Union. A highly efficient “WhatsApp” group was activated and provided daily updates briefing members of breaking news and current affairs.
The success of the “leave” campaign strengthed the Euroscepticism of the ERG and extended its popularity to private donors. Paul Dyer, a pro-Brexit businessman, gave £10,000 and the ERG also received cash from the Constitutional Research Council,(CRC) the shadowy group behind the Democratic Unionist Party’s secretive £435,000 Brexit donation. In December 2016, the CRC gave £6,500 to then chair Steve Baker for an ERG Christmas party.
By that time the ERG had established links to key figures in the DUP. Nigel Dodds, the party’s Westminster leader, was a regular at ERG meetings. Former DUP Westminster chief of staff Christopher Montgomery joined the ERG as a researcher.
Like Dodds, Montgomery was a former Vote Leave board member who had maintained a long-standing personal relationship with the CRC’s chair Scottish Tory, Richard Cook who posted in the “WhatsApp” group: “I applaud Steve Baker’s outstanding leadership of Brexit. He is indeed a superstar in a parliament with too many political pygmies!” the Scottish businessman wrote.
The ERG is an unincorporated association, (as is Richard Cook’s, CRC) and it is not required to publish accounts or list its members. This means it is able to exert an influence on British politics well beyond its legitimacy with little or no oversight or transparency about the sources of its finance. And the substantial new finance available afforded the opportunity for the ERG to consult widely in Northern Ireland and led to the drafting of alternative proposals for the Irish border.
And the establishment of a number of front groups” such as “StandUp4Brexit” staffed by those who worked with former “Vote Leave” chief technology officer Thomas Borwick provided manufactured evidence of a groundswell of popular support on social media for key ERG policies.
Similar spoiler campaigns appeared almost daily all opposing the EEC and Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. The ERG was even reported to be working with Australian spin doctor Lynton Crosby’s agency which had run the 2015 and 2017 Conservative general election campaigns and donated money and staff to Boris Johnson’s successful Tory leadership bid.