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18 July 2018

Meet Steve Baker, the Brexiteers’ shop steward

Forget the Tory big beasts, David Davis’s former deputy at DexEU is the man May really fears.

By Patrick Maguire

In the 24 hours in which Theresa May lost David Davis, her Brexit secretary, and Boris Johnson, her foreign secretary, neither resignation seriously damaged her precarious hold on power.

But another departure, not much noticed beyond Westminster, did: that of Steve Baker, the Conservative MP for Wycombe and deputy to Davis at the Department for Exiting the European Union.

Just after midnight on Monday 9 July, Baker joined his boss in quitting his ministerial post. Like Davis and Johnson, he was unable to swallow the compromises of the Brexit plan brokered at Chequers two days earlier. Yet, unlike his higher-profile colleagues, he did not make for the broadsheet comment pages.

Instead, he returned to WhatsApp – and resumed his natural role as shop steward for those Tory MPs for whom no Brexit is hard enough. It is a role he knows well.

In the long parliamentary war between David Cameron and the Conservative back benches over the EU, Baker was the Eurosceptic general and master strategist: leading the push for an in/out referendum.

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He has since accused May of pursuing a “cloak and dagger” plot to foil Brexit, and believes that his former department is a “Potemkin structure” disguising Downing Street’s control over negotiations. Few now command greater personal loyalty, nor pose a bigger threat to the Prime Minister.

Meet Baker in person, however, and he seems an unlikely leader for what is essentially a guerrilla movement. The wiry, born-again Christian is boyish and impeccably polite; never personally disobliging about those who are doing everything they can to thwart his only political mission.

“I just want to leave the European Union brilliantly,” he tells me when we meet in his small parliamentary office (it has the feel of a bunker – and at one point Baker jokes that MI5 could be watching him).

Born in Cornwall in 1971, he served as an RAF flight lieutenant in the dying days of the Cold War before reading computation at Oxford and pursuing a career in IT.

He still self-identifies as a “mild-mannered software engineer”, but now mostly uses technology to engineer mutiny among his backbench colleagues. Media appearances and resignations are co-ordinated using an Excel spreadsheet and what he cryptically refers to as “communication channels open to different levels of public and secret comms”.

Politicised by the Lisbon Treaty, Baker joined the Conservative Party with the express intention of getting Britain out of the EU. “I came into politics because for me, the absolutely fundamental issue of political economy is that the ordinary, everyday person’s vote must count for something,” he says. Elected to his Buckinghamshire seat in 2010, Baker’s mission began in earnest when he was appointed chair of Conservatives for Britain, the precursor organisation to Vote Leave. He says he was picked because he had never rowed with a colleague.

His bonhomie disguises a sense of purpose that is almost frightening in its clarity. Proselytising at full speed, Baker is a sight to behold. His is the zeal of a convert – he was baptised by full-body immersion in the sea off the Cornish coast – and the energy of an autodidact.

In the course of an hour-long conversation, he cites thinkers as diverse as Alan Greenspan, Ralph Miliband, Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, James Burnham, CS Lewis and Ludwig von Mises as the intellectual ballast for his philosophy of individualism – one underpinned by his Christian faith. (“We’re all sinful and fallen. That’s the problem with this world, isn’t it?”)

Some Eurosceptics whisper that he could emerge as a leadership challenger, though Baker dismisses this as “not a practical proposition” and says he “despises” power. Nor does he buy into his reputation as the Svengali of the hard Brexiteers. “I happen to have some organisational skills… but the idea I’m controlling events is for the birds.”

Yet with the government forced into concessions to the Brexiteers, it is arguable he is doing just that. The Chequers plan, he tells me, “shackles the UK to a failing system of ideas” and is the wrong response to a “profound crisis of managerialism, left and right”.

Were it implemented, he fears that a Corbyn government would be the result. A keen skydiver who commutes to parliament by motorbike, Baker reaches for an analogy about his favourite hobby: “This is an edge moment, and people want to stay in the plane. And staying in the plane is fine, when everything is OK, but if the plane is going down, you need to get out.”

What happens, to borrow that analogy, if May refuses to jump? If she is still wedded to the Chequers plan by autumn, Baker says, then “every member of parliament will face profoundly difficult choices”.

And if she sticks to her guns, how will history judge her? “It’s too early to say,” he says. “To do what I want will require a degree of boldness which not all share.”

This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact