Occasionally in political debate one has to concede that those whose views are in opposition to oneself have been successful, that they have played the “political game” extremely well, have been smart, focused and, to an extent, have earned their success.
The European Research Group, “the party within a party”, are a step or two away from a victory they could individually and collectively only have dreamed of three years ago: a hard, or preferably no deal Brexit which will provide the platform to enact the primary objective of the group: to evolve Britain into a radical ‘free market’, low regulation and low taxation nation off the shores of Europe.
Some have described this, erroneously, as “Singapore by the Sea” when in fact the more obvious point of comparison would be Donald Trump’s anti-regulatory and low taxation vision for the US, which has proven popular both with his base and, most significantly, with many US corporations and investors.
To enact an ERG vision of the UK requires two things: Britain to leave the EU with the lowest level of regulatory alignment, which a “no deal Brexit” would ensure; and for the (new?) Prime Minister, the Treasury and the wider Civil Service to recognise that a post-no deal Brexit UK cannot compete with the EU head on, and will need to explore seriously how to become a disruptive competitor by significantly reducing regulatory and tax burdens.
Apparently, parts of the civil service tasked (finally) with preparing for the economic reality of a no deal Brexit are investigating tax stimulus measures to avoid an economic crash, and we are all too aware of the lively debate between the Department for International Trade and DEFRA (and one would assume the Department of Health) about regulatory standards after Brexit.
I don’t wish to get into the philosophical and political arguments about whether the ERG’s vision of the UK is credible or representative of the wishes of the majority of UK citizens. As a contributor to this site promoting the radical centre, my own views will be obvious. But the extraordinary success of the ERG in the last three months particularly owes as much to their political skill as to the chaos currently surrounding British politics – though this undoubtedly has helped.
All parties, official and “independent”, should learn from the ERG’s approach in the last few weeks and reflect why they appear to be failing when the ERG is so close to success.
In summary, I believe one can point to the following: a clear and above all universally shared aspiration and vision for Britain (which has very little to do with immigration and much more to do with economics); a clear “long game”, an understanding of how to position oneself; an excellent discipline in voting in the Commons to create a quasi “block vote” and unofficial “whip” within their official party; ensuring only certain individuals communicate with the media and the public at large.
Should the ERG be successful in forcing a “no deal Brexit”, or some outcome that continues to make a “hard Brexit” in the long term likely, then their next moves should be obvious: to force Theresa May to continue to observe their red lines for the length of her (presumably short) tenure; or to unseat her through a leadership election presumably this year, which will either bring Boris Johnson to power as their spokesperson or another party leader (Javid or Hunt one assumes), who will be aware that he can only govern with the support of the ERG.
It seems likely, barring the unlikely event of an election, a Conservative defeat and a soul-searching in the parliamentary party, that the ERG will dominate the right of the political spectrum for the foreseeable future. They have become powerful and indispensable.
They have a shared ambition and vision, something lacking in almost all other parts of the UK’s political spectrum. And they have the good fortune that the only significant opposition seems to come from the hard Left – who are unlikely to win a general election – with the political centre fragmented between official and unofficial groupings who have yet to coalesce into something more meaningful.
The ERG may or may not get its no deal Brexit over the line in the next five weeks. Longer term, as the politically smartest grouping in the House, it knows that the real threat to enacting its vision will not come from a fragmenting, increasingly unelectable hard Left Labour party (which is now some way behind the Conservatives in the polls) but from a credible, intelligent, media-friendly and communicative centrist movement.
That movement would need to become a formalised party capable of winning an election or indispensable to a coalition. Sadly, forming such a party from the Lib Dems and a smattering of “independents” seems a long way away.
In the Kingdom of the Blind, the one-eyed man is king. The ERG appear to have a very clear eye on their prize.
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