Richard North, 09/09/2017  

Not for the first time the shadowy European Research Group (ERG) has come to our attention, alongside the equally dubious Red Tape Initiative. More recently, one of its previous members and now minister, Steve Baker, has attracted some media attention while Open Democracy has been asking questions about ERG funding.

Helpfully, we are now seeing Open Democracy follow up with a report that Labour MPs are calling for a "full investigation" of what is being called a "party within a party".

More than a quarter of a million pounds in official expenses, it seems, has been claimed by a group of 40 Tory MPs for ''research'' carried out by the ERG, the stated aim of which is a "hard" Brexit. This includes paying for the services of Christopher Howarth, who has been particularly active in promoting the WTO option.

Under current Parliamentary rules, individual MPs cannot claim for research or work ''done for, or on behalf of a political party'' and there is some question, therefore, as to whether the funds paid to the ERG, which has a decidedly Conservative bias, are in accordance with the rules.

But even without what are in fact very flexible rules being bent, there is good cause for concern over the way the group operates. Despite being publicly funded and using Parliamentary facilities, no accounts or membership list have been published.

Current chair of the ERG, MP Suella Fernandes, who replaced Steve Baker when he was promoted to his ministerial position in MinBrex, refuses to name the members, claiming that such information is only available to the group itself.

Now, Open Democracy has prevailed upon a number of Labour MPs, led by Steve Doughty, to approach the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), complaining that the ERG has an effective "secret" list of members and that the way it receives public money through the claims of some Tory MPs ''is significantly different from the funding that is used for other pooled research facilities''.

Specifically, the ERG seems to be a closed group, with its membership restricted and is "research" devoted to party political ends – including the promotion of party leadership candidates.

What is troubling is that the ERG, which is thought to have the support of 80 or so Conservative MPs, is working within the Conservative Party and able, through Steve Baker, to exercise disproportionate influence on David Davis and Mrs May, effectively holding the Government to ransom.

Questions are also being asked about Howarth. Although he effectively runs the ERG as an independent organisation, he works out of an office in the Commons in apparent contravention of the rules, using telephones and other facilities. IPSA have been asked to investigate who he is currently sponsored by, and on what basis he is working.

As for Baker, although he gave up the chairmanship of the ERG when he became a minister, he is seen by many Tories on both sides of the European divide as capable of holding the government hostage over Brexit issues. If Downing Street begins leaning towards a softer Brexit or a lengthy transition with the UK still governed by rules from Brussels, the ERG – at his behest - is likely to be the front line of any revolt that could see May ousted as prime minister.

And when, recently, ERG members signed a letter urging Mrs May to support a hard Brexit, Baker intervened on a private online messaging group that encouraged MPs to sign the letter. This open support may have gone too far, amounting to a breach of collective government responsibility.

Despite his promotion, Baker maintains active links with many ERG members and, through the think tank he co-founded, the Cobden Centre, has many more political contacts. The Centre itself has close links with the Legatum Institute which relies on offshore funding and is also actively promoting a "hard Brexit" agenda.

Alongside the Legatum Institute, the IEA, the Adam Smith Institute and the Policy Exchange, the ERG is part of a shadowy nexus, with unparalleled parliamentary access, devoted to securing a hard Brexit, with an agenda that is very far from transparent.

Their activities raise serious questions as to how easy it is to buy political influence in this country through the think tank network, and how this can be meshed with unaccountable parliamentary groups to pursue agendas that have no democratic mandate and which deliver substantial financial benefits to their sponsors.

The interesting thing is that donations from overseas businesses directly to MPs are prohibited, but there is nothing to stop foreign enterprises setting up or funding political think tanks which in turn can pay MPs expenses and speaking fees, or provide services free of charge.

The role of informal "research groups", funded by MPs and operating within the Palace of Westminster, is also questionable. And where these have close informal links with think tanks – as is the case here – there is a back door for lobbyists which circumvent already lax rules.

Through undisclosed links with members, these groups can also steer the agendas of select committees, placing "evidence" and witnesses before the committees in a way that can increase their profile and assist in gaining favourable media coverage.

Through think tanks and their associated activities, journalists can also be recruited into the networks, as we see with Telegraph columnist Charles Moore, who has been co-opted onto the advisory board of the Red Tape Initiative, alongside luminaries such as Archie Norman and Sir Paul Tucker.

These then feed into shadowy advisory firms which provide funding conduits for staff and facilities and a way of rewarding the faithful with lucrative consultancy jobs.

What we end up with are networks of influence which are very far from transparent, which can lobby government and pursue undeclared political agendas, alongside media supporters who can ensure that the right messages are given prominence. They also provide reward systems which keep people on-side and, effectively, makes bribery redundant.

Effectively, lobbyists have found a way of circumventing MP spending rules and, at the same time, rules on political donations. Through intermediaries, any foreign resident can set up a think tank in this country and, with no more than a few million a year (chump change to the average billionaire), can buy up the political establishment – who sell themselves very cheaply.

The "useful fools" come even cheaper, but with the potential profits to be made out of a hard Brexit, one wonders whether some of the more prominent advocates of the disaster scenario are quite as foolish as they seem.

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