Profile: Steve Baker, Christian Conservative, ERG organiser, small stater – and thorn in Johnson’s side

22 Dec

“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.

Barwell’s memoir. The more conscientious he becomes, the less illuminating this book is

13 Nov

Chief of Staff: Notes from Downing Street  by Gavin Barwell

Advisers, Gavin Barwell says, are too important. That is an admirably un-self-important conclusion for an adviser to reach.

Barwell served as Theresa May’s Chief of Staff from just after the disastrous general election of 2017 until at last she sank beneath the waves in the summer of 2019.

At the end of his 400-page account, he says:

“If I were to do it all again, my first piece of advice to Theresa would be that she should invest more time in her relationships with senior colleagues. The Thatcher ministry was sustained by the support of people like Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit; the Blair ministry by John Prescott and Peter Mandelson; the Cameron ministry by George Osborne and William Hague. Theresa didn’t have key lieutenants of this stature around her. Thirty or forty years ago, the House of Commons sat late most nights, but today it only sits late on Mondays. This has helped to make it more family-friendly, but at the expense of ministers spending more time together. At the same time, there has been an explosion in the number of political advisers. They are the people ministers now spend most of their time with, and that’s a mistake.”

He makes a good point. There has been a growing tendency, when anything goes wrong, to call in new advisers, to replace or supplement those already there.

The deficiencies in the Downing Street machine, its inability to run smoothly under Boris Johnson and the frequency with which faulty decisions have to be reversed, have become a staple of political commentary.

But as Barwell observes, “When the chips are down, politicians depend on the support of their [ministerial] colleagues.”

At Chequers, in the summer of 2018, May’s problem was that she could not carry David Davis and Boris Johnson with her.

It is impossible as Foreign Secretary – the post to which she appointed Johnson in the summer of 2016 – to achieve much unless the Prime Minister of the day takes you into his or her confidence.

This May never did with Johnson. When she was in her pomp – a period hard to recall, but it lasted until she made a hash of the 2017 general election – she made jokes at his expense and shut him out of any serious discussion of how to get Brexit done.

Barwell was not at this stage at her side, but one doubts whether he would have been able to get her to behave in any other way. As Home Secretary, she was notoriously disinclined to confide in colleagues, and this habit served her well.

In Number 10, it did not serve her well. Before Chequers, a row blew up about the Northern Ireland backstop, and she held meetings with several senior ministers in order to try to square them:

“The conversation with Boris was probably the worst meeting of her premiership. He was so rude that I came close to interrupting and asking him to leave. He said we’d made a massive mistake in signing up to the Joint Report. Why had we agreed to all this mumbo jumbo about Northern Ireland? He was normally the person telling us to get a move on, but now he was arguing that we shouldn’t publish anything.”

One begins to see Barwell’s limitations as an historian. He doesn’t give us the actual words spoken by Johnson, which must have been vivid. We are fobbed off with a paraphrase: more scrupulous, but less illuminating and enjoyable.

And this is a problem throughout the book. Barwell was there, but is too well-behaved to tell us what he heard.

We instead find ourselves wading through an official report in which any dramatic moment is deliberately rendered less dramatic. Here is part of his account of how at the end of 2017 the Joint Report came about:

“Then, just a few days before the Prime Minister was due to meet President Juncker, the EU negotiating team presented our team with revised text on Northern Ireland, which went much further than we were expecting. The key section was what would become paragraph 49 of the Joint Report that was published a week later. It said that the UK was committed to protecting north-south co-operation and avoiding a hard border, and that we hoped to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK future relationship, but should this not be possible, we would propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland; in their absence, we would maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which supported north-south co-operation…

“The Prime Minister was hugely frustrated when Olly told her about this text. She was exasperated at being asked to make commitments about what we would do if we couldn’t reach an agreement about our future relationship before we’d even had a chance to talk about it…

“Nevertheless, it was clear that if we rejected the text outright, we would not be able to achieve ‘sufficient progress’. What, then, should we do? We were the ones under time pressure; the EU could stick to its position, safe in the knowledge that a parliamentary majority was opposed to no deal, so the UK would have to compromise sooner or later. The Prime Minister began to think about whether we could live with the text…”

One would not guess, from Barwell’s dreary language, that a fatal concession is being made. This stuff goes on for page after page, and what is particularly infuriating is that the book has no index, which makes it of far less value to historians and other researchers.

If one wishes to check some particular point, or to see whether Barwell has anything illuminating to say about a particular individual, one has to wade one’s way through bureaucratic language which has the effect of obfuscating, unless one is a bureaucrat, what is actually going on.

The whole sorry story is set out in Roderick Crawford’s authoritative account, The Northern Ireland Protocol: The Origins of the Present Crisis, published at the start of this month by Policy Exchange.

Lord Frost’s preface to that account has already appeared on ConHome. Frost was at that point a special adviser to Johnson. It was immediately clear that “a crucial pass had been sold”, but also that if the Foreign Secretary resigned, on what could be made to seem like a horribly dull technicality, it would be impossible to explain to the public what all the fuss was about.

May persuaded herself that “we could live with the text”, even though it failed to take account of relations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is easy, of course, to be wise after the event, and to forget how weak her position had already become. At the time, it seemed bizarre that she could stagger on for as long as she did.

Why this life in death? Barwell reminds us that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act “had taken away the Prime Minister’s ability to call an election at a time of their choosing, removing the ultimate threat with which a government could get rebel MPs to back its key policies”.

But May had already fired that weapon without any pressing need to do so: in 2017 she called an election and was then unable to present the public with a convincing reason for asking their opinion, which they reckoned they had made clear in the 2016 referendum.

Barwell came on board after that election, in which he lost his seat, Croydon Central, held since 2010. May evidently felt at ease with him, and it is clear that he possesses many of the same virtues as her: he is honest, conscientious, masters the detail and has a deep knowledge of Conservative politics, in which he has been engaged in various capacities since leaving Trinity College, Cambridge in 1993.

These are valuable qualities, but as May demonstrated, they are not sufficient.

At the start of a chapter entitled Media Relations, Barwell remarks: “Theresa wasn’t very interested in communications.” He adds that “Part of me admires her for this”: he would prefer a Prime Minister “who was focussed on getting the decisions right to one who was more interested in photo opportunities”.

But part of the trouble with putting off the moment of communication is that you can suppress your doubts about whether you are doing something which, when presented to the public, will prove justifiable.

In his memoir, Barwell gives scant sign of being interested in communications. Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, texts him after they have attended the weekly meeting of permanent secretaries to say: “All my colleagues think you would make a great perm sec.”

The compliment is deserved, but is perhaps why this book reads like a civil service training manual, with virtually no attempt to interest the general reader.

David Frost: The Protocol has begun to damage the thing it was designed to protect. The EU must join us in returning to it.

1 Nov

Lord Frost is Minister of State at the Cabinet Office and former chief negotiator for Brexit.

Policy Exchange has performed a huge public service in publishing today Roderick Crawford’s meticulous analysis of the so-called “Joint Report” of December 2017.

He has written a piercing analysis which, for as long as the issues raised by the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland are not yet settled, will be of more than purely historical interest.

I may differ from Roderick on a few points of detail, but not on the overall assessment: that the Joint Report, so-called because it was an agreed document between the UK and the EU, is arguably the text that has done most to shape the terms of this country’s exit from the European Union.

As Special Adviser to Boris Johnson when Foreign Secretary, I was a close observer, rather than a participant, during the period covered by this document. I nevertheless have acute memories of it. As the Report circulated within government that December, it was immediately clear to us that a crucial pass had been sold in agreeing — unless an alternative was agreed with the EU, which it clearly would not be — to “maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement” (paragraph 49 of the Joint Report).

Although efforts were made internally to persuade us that “alignment” really meant “equivalence” or “approximation”, we could see that that was not so, and that the effect of this commitment would be to keep the UK in the customs union and much of the single market and thus to destroy the prospect of a meaningful Brexit. This indeed turned out to be the outcome in the initial version of the Protocol from November 2018, via the famous “backstop”, an agreement which Parliament consistently refused to approve.

As I fielded furious calls from Brexiteers that December week, I had two thoughts in my mind. First, “if I resign over this, how will I ever explain what it is all about?” That was a valid question at that point. When all the politics were about how we got over the “sufficient progress” threshold to further talks, this point on Northern Ireland would seem to many like a technicality. By July 2018, this was no longer the case. The linkage between Ireland, the fanciful “Chequers” proposals, and the inexorable logic on which the then Government was embarked was all too clear. It has been with us ever since.

My second thought was “how did we ever come to agree to this?” We now know, from Irish and other EU sources, that the EU was asking itself the same question. Close observers could see that the North-South dimensions of the Belfast Agreement had been prioritised over its other dimensions, that the Report would not command any support from the unionist community, and that the British Government’s agreement to these provisions was wholly unexpected.

My answer is three-fold. First, we had drifted into accepting the EU’s view that the only way to ensure no “hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls” (para 43 of the Joint Report) was for the laws on either side of the border to be identical. This ignored the fact that there already was, and is, an international border, an open one, with different currency systems, laws, taxation, and many trading rules on either side.

Second, I do not think we had made the necessary mental shift from being a member of the EU to negotiating exit from the EU. While Olly Robbins was doing his level best to negotiate exit, UK diplomats were trying to participate in EU institutions as if we were a normal member state. Our collaborative instincts from 45 years of membership meant that we were too slow to adopt a robust enough negotiating position. It is very clear that the EU did not make the same mistake, and it was explicitly to reset this psychology on our side too that we withdrew UK diplomats from most EU meetings from August 2019.

Third, it is only fair to point to the extreme weakness of the UK Government after the June 2017 election, both in Parliament and in the lack of consensus amongst its key members about how and perhaps even whether we should be exiting the EU at all. The criticisms made of the Joint Report must be tempered by the difficult circumstances in which the negotiators found themselves, compounded as they were by the EU’s desire to maximise their leverage on Northern Ireland.

When Johnson returned, as Prime Minister, in July 2019, and I returned as Chief Negotiator for Brexit, we inherited that Parliamentary weakness too. Nevertheless we were able to re-establish a clear purpose for the Government and to reset the balance on two crucial points, set out in the Prime Minister’s letter to Donald Tusk of August 19. The first was an unequivocal commitment to the Belfast Agreement and a clear statement that the backstop risked undermining the “delicate balance” between its three overlocking strands. The second was an explicit disavowal of the commitment to “alignment” in paragraph 49 of the Joint Report.

Despite this, in the short window of the next two months, we inevitably still operated within the intellectual and political framework set by the Joint Report. Our negotiating leverage had been cut away by the Benn-Burt Act, which made it impossible for us to leave the EU without a deal, and there was even an increasing worry that it might turn out to be impossible to deliver on the referendum result at all. Nevertheless we got a deal that took the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, out of the EU. The deal restored genuine agency to us for the future, by removing the backstop, which would have locked the whole country in the customs union and much of the single market and given the EU the key.

But we could not in the end escape the EU’s insistence on imposing its customs and goods rules in Northern Ireland. The best we could do was include mitigations and balances in the new Protocol — and, crucially, given all these uncertainties and political novelties, insert the principle that the functioning of the Protocol beyond 2024 required the explicit consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

We knew, as did the Irish Government, that this new Protocol would require immensely sensitive handling. We understood that the East-West dimensions of the Northern Irish economy are in any circumstances vastly more important than its “all island” dimensions — and that the former not the latter were the economic lifeblood of the province. We knew, as some in the Irish Government would privately concede, that the balance between the three strands of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement had been upset by the approach taken in the Joint Report; and that the risk was that the EU’s approach to the Protocol would not be consistent with the explicit commitment to protect the Agreement, in all its dimensions.

Unfortunately the operation of the Protocol has not been adapted to these underpinning realities. It has begun to damage the thing it was designed to protect — the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The insistence of the EU on treating these arrangements as like any other part of its customs and single market rules, without regard to the huge political, economic, and identity sensitivities involved, has destroyed cross-community consent well before the four-year mark.

We also have the lived experience of aspects that are simply unsustainable in the long-term for any Government responsible for the lives of its citizens — like having to negotiate with a third party about the distribution of medicines within the NHS. That is why we must return to the Protocol and deliver a more robust, and more balanced, outcome than we could in 2019. I hope the EU will in the end join us in that. And in so doing we will, I hope, finally move beyond the intellectual framing that Crawford so ably describes.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: The Prisoner of Chequers sounds fine but does not look well

21 Jul

“Can you hear me, Mr Speaker?” the Prime Minister inquired after something went wrong with the transmission of his rather diffuse observations from Buckinghamshire. “Do you want me to repeat that answer again?”

“Just the end bit,” the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, replied.

That was the right direction, but seemed not to reach Boris Johnson, who was addressing a camera in Chequers, and was not always audible in the Chamber, though we could hear him well enough on television.

He did not look well. His forehead, or what we could discern of it through his dishevelled hair, looked pink with undertones of yellowish bruising.

One might have been looking at a hostage, who was putting as brave a face as he could on his predicament. Self-isolation does not suit him.

But his voice was robust enough, as he repeated pretty much the whole of his answer.

Sir Keir Starmer, present in the Commons Chamber, asked another long-winded question, dragging in various bits of embarrassing material supplied by Dominic Cummings, and by ministers who have given contradictory advice about the current rules for dealing with the pandemic.

This was over-egging it. If only Sir Keir could have prevailed on himself to offer just one piece of embarrassing evidence, the determination of the Prisoner of Chequers to evade the question would have been more obvious.

Ian Blackford, for the SNP, following Cummings, accused the PM of wanting to sacrifice the over-80s.

Johnson replied that this was a gross mischaracterisation of the exchanges which had taken place.

A succession of backbenchers asked mostly local questions, about the hospital, the pub, the school, the railway, the canal, and Johnson in benevolent monarch mode offered a judicious word of encouragement to each of them.

This session, the last before the Summer Recess, lasted 50 minutes, which was 20 minutes longer than it should have done. Sir Lindsay’s request for “shortish questions and answers” had not been met, and after he observed that this was the 60th anniversary edition of PMQs, one could only reflect that it is just now like one of those Radio Four programmes which has become a shadow of its former self.