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Thu 4 June 2020
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Otto English looks into the background and funding of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Reform Group, 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 resignations, they declared Theresa May to be now “firmly in the grip” of the fanatical European Reform Group (ERG) 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.

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

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, it doesn’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 story doesn’t end there. As Open Democracy revealed this week, behind the scenes the ERG is itself being influenced by the 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 in its field, 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, which in turn is dictating the course of Brexit, should frankly be a source of national concern.  

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.

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

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

Years of networking has taken the IEA from the peripheries to a position where it is helping to dictate the course of Britain’s future. Meanwhile, its invidious presence on current affairs panels and influence on key Conservative players in the ERG goes unquestioned.

A ‘hard’ Brexit will benefit some. Disaster capitalists, the hedge fund managers and 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.

Table via Transparify.Org

The ERG and IEA are engaged in a coordinated effort to further their interests and those of their backers.

It will harm the prospects of Britain and the lives of ordinary British people – and it is deeply worrying that nobody is prepared to call it out.

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