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‘Can the Conservatives Ever Break Free from the ERG?’

Rishi Sunak has nailed his Government’s successes on the support of those like Suella Braverman in the European Research Group – and finds himself trapped, writes David Lowther

Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA/Alamy

Can the Conservatives Ever Break Free from the ERG?

Rishi Sunak has nailed his Government’s successes on the support of those like Suella Braverman in the European Research Group – and finds himself trapped, writes David Lowther

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The European Research Group – commonly referred to as the ERG – has notoriously dogged the Conservatives at every juncture on Brexit in recent years.

Little is known about its ethos, but it is clear from its identified members that one of the group’s key tenets is an entrenched belief in a fairy tale Brexit that cannot exist in conjunction with holistic EU relations. 

The ERG is also one of the core reasons the Conservatives have haemorrhaged support – shifting a party with a politics of ‘law and order’ and ‘fiscal responsibility’ to one of personal, sexual and fiscal scandal.

One of the more prominent ERG members is now offering her resignation to enforce Rishi Sunak’s compliance with its line on Brexit. Will the Prime Minister continue to stride the path the ERG appears to have mapped out for him? t

According to reports, Suella Braverman is threatening to resign as Home Secretary (again) if Sunak does not halt his progress in negotiations around the Northern Ireland Protocol, which have attempted to ease relations between Westminster, Stormont and the EU that have been notoriously fractious for the past seven years.

This is a secondary attack – the first was Boris Johnson’s emergence from the backbenches to offer unwanted advice to Sunak that he had to stick with his own ill-thought-out legislation, currently paused in Parliament, regarding the UK and Northern Ireland’s future trading relationship with the European Union. 

Because Northern Ireland does not wish to have its place in the Union threatened, any border causes frustrations in its trading ability – exhaustive checks with the EU would scupper any businesses based on import/export sending goods to mainland Europe, but a border in the Irish Sea also affects trade, and thus its place in the United Kingdom. 

This impasse was poorly negotiated by Johnson, whose zeal to enact his own counterfeit deal seems to come from a desperation to mark his place in future history books. But an honest historian will remember this period and the accounts of increasing unrest over failing businesses, abandoned promises and poorly negotiated treaties with bemusement at best and suspicions of malevolence at worst.

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To Sunak’s credit, his solution has progressed slowly, but his fatal flaw is pleasing the EU with promises to ensure that it would have a say also in Northern Ireland’s trade because Northern Ireland sits within the Single Market – a market which the rest of the UK left (contrary to airy promises from the leave campaign that our place would not be threatened).

So strong is the malign influence of the ERG among Sunak’s benches that Braverman – outspoken in acknowledging her ERG membership – believes this threat of resignation is weighty enough for Sunak to pause negotiations.

Former British diplomat Sir Stephen Wall once wrote that “after the debacle of Suez in 1956”, the UK’s “self image of great power status could no longer be indulged”. His words are in dire need of absorption by Brexit loyalists in the Conservatives. Especially because the UK’s economic situation speaks to our need to forge solutions to trade issues to alleviate the cost of living crisis.

Quite apart from this situation being a potential boon for Sunak – a chance to moderate his party – it speaks to Braverman’s misplaced sense of self importance that she feels assured enough that her presence in Sunak’s Cabinet does anything but slow-bleed damage. 

Her appointment as Home Secretary created questions among Sunak loyalists – who saw it as tantamount to a shady back-room deal and a bloodless coup against Truss. Braverman admitted leaking confidential information and stepped down in disgrace as Truss’ Home Secretary – adding another blow to the then Prime Minister’s already shredded reputation. She was then swiftly guided back to her Cabinet seat by the successor she endorsed.

In her tenures in the role, Braverman has received widespread criticism for referring to people crossing the Channel on boats as an “invasion”; suggesting that asylum seekers’ behaviour has provoked violent riots against them; set in train more draconian public order reforms; and endorsed a review of counter-extremism strategy Prevent calling for more focus on “Islamist ideology”, despite far-right activity increasing in recent years.

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Ultimately, what this means is that Rishi Sunak has nailed his Government’s successes on the support of those like Braverman in the ERG – and he finds himself trapped.

Despite the reality of Britain’s hard Brexit hitting home with voters, as shown by a number of recent polls, the ERG still refuses to compromise – believing that the UK can dictate the terms of engagement with the EU.

Sunak knows that the ERG believes its Faustian deal with him tie them both inextricably together. Should he stand up to Braverman, he would lose the scant support he inherited from the ERG’s true (and disastrous) pick, Truss. But what choice does he have?

The Prime Minister’s behaviour appears to be the perfect demonstration of why moderation in the face of extreme rhetoric is doomed to fail: while desperate to appease those who cannot be stilled, he continues to alienate those who would naturally lend him their support. Meanwhile, the human cost continues to mount every day, as Brits struggle along.

Bereft of policy to negate the ills of its crises, the Conservative Party is now set to call on its ‘culture war’ cavalry to divide and distract. Brexit, trans rights, abortion access, small boats. By saddling himself with the ERG, Rishi Sunak has left himself little way out.

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