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9 July 2018

David Davis’s resignation isn’t the one Theresa May should be worried about

The return of Brexit minister Steve Baker to the backbenches reunites an army of angry Tory Leavers with their general.

By Patrick Maguire

Who made Brexit happen? The list as popularly imagined takes in everyone from David Cameron and Nigel Farage to Paul Dacre, Jeremy Corbyn and the staff of Cambridge Analytica. But one man who rarely features is Steve Baker, the Conservative MP who joined David Davis in quitting as a Brexit minister in the early hours of this morning. 
Baker, until last night the most doctrinaire leaver inside government and one of the few sincere advocates for a no-deal exit on the government payroll, is far more deserving of a place on that list than most. In the long parliamentary war over Brexit, the born-again Christian has played general and quartermaster to Eurosceptic Tories with an evangelical zeal and considerable success. 
In 2015, as founding chairman of Conservatives for Britain, the predecessor organisation to Vote Leave, he corralled over a third of the Tory parliamentary party into a push against David Cameron’s renegotiation, and for Brexit. 
In 2016, as chair of the European Research Group, he turned a fringe group of a few dozen unfashionable Tory MPs into one of the most effective forces in British politics, shaping both the media narrative and government policy on Brexit. 
In 2017 and 2018, as deputy to David Davis at Dexeu, he was the hard Brexiteers’ man on the inside – and, effectively, their canary in the coalmine. Baker’s presence on the payroll was a signal that, however bad the mood music, Theresa May would deliver something that satisfied the desire of he and his many acolytes for a hard, clean break with the EU. 
His departure proves that desire isn’t going to be sated. That much is obvious. Rather less obvious to many people at this point is just how damaging Baker’s return to the trenches is going to be for the Prime Minister’s authority.

Davis’s resignation has made today’s headlines but he is not the person who can, and will organise his restive colleagues to keep making them. That person is Baker. In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit secretary’s departure last night, one government source told me that its significance would depend on whether his deputy followed him. It is not an exaggeration to say that Baker wields more personal influence than any government whip. His return to the ERG’s WhatsApp group, the crucible of Tory mutiny, shows he is going to use it. 

At the last meeting of the 1922 Committee – held as the EU Withdrawal Bill made its protracted journey through the Commons last month – Baker was dispatched outside to extol Tory unity on Brexit to waiting reporters. Ahead of this evening’s meeting, he has the means, motive and opportunity to sow disunity and with it a push to trigger a vote of no confidence in May. History suggests he will make a success of it. 

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