“The more Steve Baker is in the papers, the worse the Conservative Party is doing,” a senior Tory remarked this week.
Baker is in the papers quite a bit. Sam Coates of Sky News reported a few days ago that Baker had sacked Nadine Dorries from the “Clean Global Brexit” WhatsApp group of Tory MPs, after she had the temerity to defend Boris Johnson as “the hero who delivered Brexit”.
“Enough is enough,” Baker declared on removing her, and posted a thumbs-up emoji of himself, before suggesting that the Conservatives’ victory at the last general election was by no means entirely thanks to Johnson:
“Someone (ahem) but not him persuaded Farage not to run against incumbents.”
George Parker of The Financial Times cites another striking comment by Baker, made during last week’s rebellion by 99 Conservative backbenchers:
“There is now a party within a party,” winced one Tory official after the Commons vote. Steve Baker, a former minister, quoted Romans to fellow rebels in a WhatsApp message, urging them to show magnanimity as they inflicted humiliation on the prime minister: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Baker’s Christian faith is more important to him than his politics, though for most purposes the two are indistinguishable. He was baptised in the sea off his native Cornwall as a teenager, and told Sebastian Whale, who wrote a long piece about him for PoliticsHome at the start of 2020:
“‘It is absolutely fundamental to who I am that I am a Christian. I don’t think of myself as a religious person, I just am a Christian.’… When asked if there is space for religion and politics to co-exist, Baker replies: ‘What happens I’m afraid with my Christian brothers and sisters, as so often in politics, is they allow themselves to be shown the landmine and then they jump on the landmine with both feet.’ His political mantra is: ‘Do not give into evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it.'”
His determination to combine confrontation of evil with practical politics is seen in his role as the principal organiser of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Conservatives.
“He is one of the most organised and effective people you could work with,” a senior ERG person told ConHome. “He understands technology – he knows how to make systems work.”
But Baker is no dry-as-dust technocrat, Two days before the third Meaningful Vote, held on 29th March 2019, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, told Conservative MPs at a meeting of the 1922 Committee that if they voted for the Withdrawal Agreement, she would in due course stand down as Prime Minister and as their leader.
The pressure on members of the ERG to support the deal was intense, with other Conservatives shouting at them to do so. But immediately afterwards, the ERG held a meeting of its own, which was addressed by Baker, who said:
“I am consumed by a ferocious rage…after that pantomime of sycophancy and bullying next door.
“It is a rage I have not felt since the time of the Lisbon Treaty, when I realised that those who govern us care not how we vote.
“For what did our forebears fight and die? It was for our liberty. And what is our liberty, if not our right to govern ourselves, peacefully at the ballot box?
“Like all of you, I have wrestled with my conscience, with the evidence before me, with the text of the Treaty, and I resolved that I would vote against this deal however often it was presented, come what may, if it meant the fall of the Government and the destruction of the Conservative Party.
“By God, right now, if I think of the worthless, ignorant cowards and knaves in the House today, voting for things they do not understand, which would surrender our right to govern ourselves, I would tear this building down and bulldoze the rubble into the river. God help me, I would.”
The speech is printed in Spartan Victory, by Mark Francois, which will be reviewed on ConHome in January. And one can perhaps see from it why someone like Andrew Mitchell, in whose recent book, reviewed here in October, Baker is not mentioned once, nevertheless told ConHome:
“Steve Baker is as straight as a die. He is unusual in politics in that he says what he thinks and means what he says. His instincts on liberty and the rights of the citizen are thoroughly admirable.”
But some Tories do find Baker, with his willingness to contemplate the fall of the Government, destruction of the Conservative Party and demolition of Parliament, a bit much to take.
In his Diaries, reviewed here in May, Sir Alan Duncan, admittedly a man ready to be annoyed, variously describes Baker as “the most useless minister”, “the little wanker”, “the vacuous little upstart”, “the turd” and “the nutjob” who “should be taken away by the men in white coats and certified as clinically insane”.
One cannot help feeling astonished that Conservative Party has remained, roughly speaking, intact.
Baker was born in Cornwall in 1971. His father was a carpenter and his mother an accounting clerk. He was educated at Poltair School in St Austell, studied Aerospace Engineering at Southampton University, and served in the RAF until 1999, after which he took an MSc in Computation at St Cross College, Oxford and held a variety of senior positions as a software engineer and consultant. His wife, Beth, served as a senior officer in the RAF medical branch until 2010.
His enthusiasms include skydiving, motorcycling, and Austrian economics, about which he discoursed with evangelical fervour when interviewed by ConHome in 2014.
The economics, and his conviction that a small state is better for the poor, came before the politics. Daniel Hannan has said of him:
“He is one of the few people who I have seen physically flinch at the thought of the Government spending more money. Really, his issue was not initially the EU except insofar as he was generally sceptical of big government and saw the EU as part of that. The Euroscepticism developed out of that.”
Wycombe was the first seat Baker put in for, and with his innocent boyish sincerity, and a twinkle in his eye, he carried all before him, and defeated Kwasi Kwarteng in the final of the selection process.
He was elected in 2010 with a majority of 9,560, which shrank in 2019 to 4,214. In Parliament, he has distinguished himself as an organiser of rebellions.
After the 2017 general election, Theresa May made him a junior minister in the Brexit department, but after she had tried to sell her version of Brexit to the Cabinet at Chequers in the summer of 2018, and his departmental minister, David Davis, had resigned, Baker too resigned, and resumed the life of a rebel organiser, for which, perhaps, he is better suited.
And yet most insurgents dream of taking over one day. That, along with the moral unacceptability of the present regime, is why they rebelled in the first place.
One may surmise that Baker is not spared such visions. He sees with brilliant clarity how he would reform the banking system, so at last it accords with the principles set down by Cobden and von Mises.
Baker is only 50. He is said to want, like most of his colleagues, to succeed Boris Johnson as leader. In August of this year, he got 4.69 per cent in the first ConHome Next Tory Leader survey for two years. He can build on that.