Sat 20 July 2019

Otto English looks into the background and funding of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ERG, alleged to operate like a ‘party within a party’ by senior Conservative MPs

As Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston quit the Conservative party this week – their reasoning was unequivocal. At a press conference to announce their resignation they declared May to be now “firmly in the grip” of the fanatical European Reform Group (ERG) rump adding:

“The hard line ERG now operates openly as a party within a party”.

Their sentiments reflect those of many Tory MPs who have watched in quiet dismay as this taxpayer funded parliamentary ‘research’ group has gone from insignificance to a position where it is apparently capable of holding the Prime Minister to ransom over the course of how we leave the EU.

(Left to right) Shanker Singham, Gisela Stuart, David Davis MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP and Theresa Villiers MP attend the launch of the Institute of Economic Affairs latest Brexit research paper, in central London.

While most people may have heard of the ERG and its leader Jacob Rees-Mogg few will have any idea of what it actually does – or who is in it. And there’s a reason for that. Under parliamentary rules they don’t have to tell us. The group is able to operate in the shadows while its members co-ordinate a hard and uncompromising Brexit.

The IEA, like many of the crop of dodgy ‘institutes’ that fill current affairs programmes is unwilling to reveal who funds it.

The story doesn’t end there. For as Open Democracy has revealed this week – behind the scenes the ERG is itself being influenced by the singularly murky Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

Set up in the 1950s as a ‘free market think-tank’ by battery farming pioneer Antony Fisher, the IEA is a registered charity that behaves more like a right wing lobbying group. In 2018 undercover Observer reporters, posing as US donors, filmed the institute’s director Mark Littlewood boasting that he had contacts right at the heart of government and was in “the Brexit influencing game”.

In the same year the IEA hired Shanker Singham from the controversial Legatum Institute, who has since become a fixture on the ERG carousel. The former Washington lobbyist is said to enjoy ‘unparalleled access’ to former DexEU Minister Steve Baker MP – Deputy Chair of the ERG.

The IEA, like many of the crop of dodgy ‘institutes’ that fill current affairs programmes is unwilling to reveal who funds it. This ‘educational charity’ claims it is sponsored by “voluntary donations from individuals, companies and foundations” but won’t say who they are.

Media Compliance and Complicity

In any normal circumstances, the conduct of these semi-anonymous think tanks would be worthy of investigation. That they apparently have undue influence on the ERG, who in turn are dictating the course of Brexit, should frankly be a source of national concern.  

A Hard Brexit will benefit…. the disaster capitalists, the hedge fund managers, American farming interests… and the big tobacco firms

So what are the major news outlets doing? Well depressingly – rather than investigating the IEA and their cohorts many news providers invite their spokespeople on as guests instead.

Kate Andrews of the IEA is a case in point. A regular on news and current affairs programmes including Question Time and Daily Politics. Offered up as a talking head despite and afforded a platform and all that goes with it, despite the organisation she represents being listed by Transparify as one of the three least transparent think tanks in the entire EU.   

Table via Transparify.Org

The IEA is just one of many right wing ‘institutes’ currently operating in a coordinated manner in and around Westminster. Years of networking has taken them from the peripheries – to a position where they are helping dictate the course of Britain’s future. Meanwhile their invidious presence on current affairs panels and influence on key Tory players in the ERG goes unquestioned.

A Hard Brexit will benefit some people. It will benefit the disaster capitalists, the hedge fund managers, American farming interests who won’t have to conform to strict EU standards and the big tobacco firms. It will even benefit certain politicians – who whatever the outcome will remain personally unaffected by any form of Brexit.

The ERG and IEA are engaged in a coordinated effort to further their interests and those of their backers – it is one that will harm the prospects of Britain and the lives of ordinary British people – and it seems that nobody is prepared to call it out.   

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