It has been a week for screeching U-turns. No matter how he likes to dress it up, Boris Johnson has been forced to apply for an extension to article 50 which the EU will decide on whether to grant in the coming days. Clearly, no ditches were available. Yet Johnson wasn’t the only one compelled to backpedal on previous commitments. The self-styled plucky warriors of the European Research Group have traded in noisy opposition for relatively mute quiescence – gone are the days of Steve Baker and Mark Francois angrily stomping through the corridors of Westminster. As shown by last night’s vote, the ERG are now cheerfully cantering through the aye lobbies instead.
Their earlier intransigence had the makings of a legend, to be handed down from one generation of dwindling members to the next, on slow evenings in the local association bar. Of principled, plucky honourable members who sacrificed ambition and career to free the UK from Brussels’ tyrannical grip, and then courageously resisted the efforts of the remainer prime minister bent on hiving off parts of the country to placate the socialist monster across the Channel. They withstood the pressure of the whip’s office and the full weight of liberal opinion – and prevailed. Theresa May then gave up the ghost and our self-regarding Spartans, for the most part, rallied around Johnson and helped deliver the Tory grassroots votes to whichever door he was living behind at the time.
After backtracking on their super-principled stand, ERG members have now thrown their wholehearted backing behind the prime minister’s new deal. A development some might find unexpected, if not shocking. Especially when you consider how Johnson’s deal is demonstrably worse, weakening the UK’s negotiating position with regard to the EU on the trade deal to come, not to mention the embarrassment of giving up on their commitment to Northern Ireland. Last October, for instance, Jacob Rees-Mogg argued Theresa May’s Brexit deal threatened the “integrity” of the UK by keeping Northern Ireland in a separate arrangement with the EU. Accusing the then prime minister of trampling on her red lines, he put his name to a failed no-confidence letter against her.
How have the ERG explained this volte-face? On Channel 4 News last Thursday, Andrew Bridgen declared: “It looks like Brexit and smells like Brexit – that’s Brexit for me.” In the House of Commons on Saturday, Francois said it was to get Brexit over the line. And for Bernard Jenkin, while aspects of the deal had “terrible elements”, the deal was a substantial improvement on what May had come to the Commons with “and it now points in a far more positive direction for our country”. This positive direction, one assumes, is the prospect of tightening the screws on workers’ rights and shredding consumer protections. The ERG’s retreat is not a pragmatic compromise to reach their ideological nirvana. It’s a scramble after interests.
As Sky’s Lewis Goodall has rightly noted, Johnson and sections of the ERG came behind May’s deal on its third appearance in the Commons because their main objective had been achieved: they had secured the promise of her departure and the possibility of installing a Brexiteer in her place. And that possibility always had Johnson’s name on it. Therefore their staunch opposition was about power politics, and so their “capitulation” to Johnson’s deal is nothing of the sort. This is a group getting used to their victory. Their positions on tax, trade, and migration are now the Tory mainstream, and those of a more temperate bent have been eased out – or, in the case of the pro-EU/anti-no deal group of Tories that Johnson sacked, now reside outside the party altogether.
Power was the objective, but to what end? Contrary to popular belief, the Tories have never been the party of business as a whole. Throughout its history they have, as a rule, tended to represent and organise only certain sectors and types of business. Since the inception of the modern Conservative party in the 1830s, financial interests – the City, banks, owners of large property portfolios, overseas speculators and the like – have tended to trump those of industry. For instance, while Thatcher framed her programme in terms of reversing national decline, she catered for finance with tax cuts, deregulation, and privatisation; the labour movement was brought to heel and manufacturing collapsed, taking whole sections of British capital along with it. Nevertheless, finance itself is no monolith, and can be variously divided by the sectors it chooses to invest in, the extent it engages in directly speculative activity, and whether it tends to look toward Britain, Europe, or the rest of the world for its returns. These orientations offer a useful way of reading Tory divisions on the EU.
On the one hand you might expect to find finance that is more interested in domestic property or markets outside the EU less disposed to the bloc’s regulatory “interference” than for those whom it is a normal part of doing business inside the EU. After all, different businesses have different markets, located in different places. Forty-plus years of economic integration with the UK’s closest neighbours has produced a wing of finance capital for whom EU-based investments is the route to profit, and are therefore happy to comply with EU regulations. Meanwhile Eurosceptic finance would find ready allies in industries that would benefit from the eradication of those regulations, such as agriculture and labour-intensive sectors for whom holding down wages is always a priority. The ERG and the external Tory party organised by Nigel Farage’s Brexit party are representatives of this coalition. Some of these concerns are shared by EU-oriented capital, which is why they cohabited happily under David Cameron, but once the dam burst during the referendum, the prospect of restricted access to EU markets became real, and the relations between EU and overseas-oriented finance more antagonistic.
Therefore the goal the ERG seeks – of a deregulated and effectively deindustrialised UK – looks completely irrational from the perspective of the health of British capitalism as a whole. The EU remains the UK’s largest export market, as well as the largest provider of imports. For most sections of business, new barriers to these flows of goods and capital will hit earnings and therefore profits. This is less the case in terms of the ERG’s sectional interests. They are prepared and happy to sacrifice the general business interest for their narrower concerns. A deskilled, low-wage workforce with few rights, and the UK a playground for footloose corporations to shake their tail at the EU’s regulatory regime from 21 miles across the Channel, would suit them perfectly. Therefore when you look at the kind of businesses associated with or owned by ERG notables, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg’s emerging markets fund or Steve Baker’s financial services holdings, it suggests their penchant for transforming the country into a no-regulation tax haven may align with their interests. Ideology and principles come second.
• Phil Burton-Cartledge is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Derby. He blogs at A Very Public Sociologist