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Steve Baker: “I’m never tasting surrender again”

The self-styled “Brexit hardman” on the Conservative Party’s existential crisis. 

On the evening of 28 March, Steve Baker, the Tory MP for Wycombe, sat down to write an “article of surrender”. The deputy chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) had led the parliamentary resistance against Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement for the best part of a year, defeating the prime minister’s deal twice and, perhaps, terminally fracturing the unity of the Conservative Party in the process.

But after months of unyielding opposition, Baker’s disciples were promised Theresa May’s resignation in exchange for their support and they began to fold.

Jacob Rees-Mogg – along with Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Iain Duncan Smith and a bunch of other supposedly irreconcilable Tories – voted for the deal at the third time of asking. Better to accept a bad Brexit, they begrudgingly admitted, than risk none.

In the end, Baker did not join them, instead leading 28 Brexiteers known as the “Spartans” – a nickname he insists is not serious – through the “no” lobby. “I realised that if I had surrendered on Thursday night, it would have been to overthrow the very reason I got into politics,” he told me when we met in Portcullis House on the morning of 1 April. Later that day, MPs rejected every possible Brexit compromise in a second round of indicative votes. “These people who are exercising power without any democratic accountability, and repudiating the votes of the general public, have got to learn that’s not OK,” Baker said.

The self-styled Brexit hardman does not bear his colleagues ill-will. The blame, he believes, lies with a higher power. “The British state has ruthlessly bullied members of parliament,” he told me. “I am not disheartened. I am furious with the British state, with my own leadership, with the EU itself, for overthrowing a democratic decision.”

There is a sort of boyishness about Baker – whose evangelical Christianity comes with a bonhomie and warmth that do not quite match his reputation as a ruthless Machiavel – but when we met his feline grin had been replaced by a grimace. “You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist, you just have to look: No 10 briefed out that MPs would have to vote as many times as necessary to get it through. That just set up a merciless war of attrition. Any member of parliament who’s lived through the past few weeks will know the pressures they’ve been put under and the stress that they have endured.”

Citing the prediction of Olly Robbins, the Prime Minister’s special adviser on leaving the EU, that MPs would eventually be given a choice between May’s deal or a long delay to Brexit, he said: “The evidence is before us. The British state has deliberately set up the conditions to bully ruthlessly members of parliament into voting for a deal that does not fulfil the fundamental mandate of the referendum, which is to take back control of British politics and policy.” (In a previous interview with the New Statesman last July, shortly after his ministerial resignation, Baker joked that MI5 could be listening in.)

That language isn’t typical of a senior Conservative MP, still less one who until last year served as a government minister (Baker quit the Brexit department, along with David Davis, in order to oppose the Chequers plans). Much of the time he doesn’t sound like one at all. “I could tear this place down,” he told an ERG meeting in the Commons on 27 March, after May assured Tory MPs she would resign once they approved her Brexit, “and bulldoze it into the river. These fools and knaves and cowards are voting on things they don’t even understand.”

Whatever this is, it isn’t Toryism. Set against that sort of rhetoric, Baker’s blue tie, often his only outward concession to party loyalty, can look like a vestigial tail: a hangover from a political world that no longer recognisably exists. Indeed, he believes that the choice now facing a recalcitrant parliament – between May’s deal, a softer Brexit and a delay so long that it could kill the project entirely – could upend British politics.

“I think we may be on the cusp of the destruction of both main parties,” he told me. “That is not what I want to happen… Labour today is dangerous and that needs to be called out. The Conservative Party, however, must be saved. There is grave difficulty ahead if both parties are broken. So I would like to see the Conservative Party saved.”

But how? “I’m not going to be giving in and voting for this bloody awful agreement,” Baker told me. He tearfully made the same case in a BBC documentary that aired on the evening of our meeting. Enough Tories agree with him to make a schism a real and present danger.

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The only Brexit solution that has hitherto delivered a majority that keeps the Conservative Party intact is one that, as far as the EU is concerned, does not exist: the withdrawal agreement gutted of the Irish backstop. Any move to placate Baker and his disciples by embracing no-deal risks turning the trickle of resignations from Tory Remainers such as Nick Boles, the Cameroon moderniser who quit the party on the floor of the Commons this week, into a flood. The same could happen if any of Baker’s favoured potential “freedom-oriented” leaders succeeded May: Dominic Raab, Boris Johnson, David Davis or Priti Patel.

But Theresa May is not going to give the Spartans what they want. So, what happens next? “The Conservative Party ought not to fail in this battle,” Baker said. “If the Conservative Party fails to take us out of the European Union, or takes us out of the European Union into what amounts to a prison in which to await our return, defeated into the EU, contrary to our vote… If the Conservative Party fails in that way – well, we’ll all face very difficult choices.”

Baker, who describes himself as a classical liberal and is pro-immigration, is no Enoch Powell. But Powell is the intellectual god-father of the movement Baker now leads. In 1974, Powell urged his supporters to vote Labour in both general elections, his party loyalties transcended by Harold Wilson’s promise of a referendum on Europe.

Baker’s aversion to socialism – which, like much of his libertarian politics, feels more American than British – means he could never go so far.

But he is willing to countenance a breach with his party. “If it’s a choice between surrendering our rights to have political power rest on consent or resigning the whip, then that’s no choice at all.” Nor does he deny that he could vote against his own government in a confidence motion should it move towards or embrace a softer Brexit: although that “is not what I want to be doing, and it’s not what my members want”.

Yet like Powell – whose intervention is credited by some as having delivered Wilson his slim majority in October 1974 – Baker and others like him could, in theory, create the conditions for a general election and with it a government he earnestly suggests would “have another go at communism”.

He does not believe such an outcome is probable, and argues that the Democratic Unionists and Corbyn-sceptic Labour MPs would not vote to bring down the Tory government. “We will keep on grinding miserably forwards.” That will most likely mean a long extension to the Article 50 period, and with it European Parliament elections in May. Baker foresees a drubbing. “As a Conservative MP, I am obliged, while I retain the Conservative whip, to encourage people to vote Conservative. But if you ask me how I think they will vote, I’d have to say to you that I don’t think very many are going to vote Conservative.”

The implication is clear: voters will instead be driven to support the sort of unapologetically pro-Brexit party that Baker has been repeatedly approached to lead. He has long predicted a Corn Laws-style fissure in the Tory coalition, but does not envisage success. “I’m not going to answer the question of whether I would facilitate that split. I will tell you that I have been approached several times about splitting off with Eurosceptics into a new party.”

He continued: “My consistent answer to them has been, ‘No, we must rescue the Tories.’ We’d end up with 25 new-party MPs trying to form a coalition or confidence and supply [arrangement] with the Tories. That’s a waste of time, because Eurosceptic classical liberals today are already in coalition with the Conservative Party. You’d cause a lot of disruption, waste millions of pounds, cause a lot of heartache and stress, to no avail. What we should do is keep the promises we’ve made to the British people.”

Could Steve Baker stand for leader to ensure those promises were kept, as close colleagues and supporters would wish? “I am forced to face up to people saying to me that they are considering whether I can do it,” he said, insisting that he was neither willing nor able. “I can perform at the despatch box, I can do media well. But it’s still not a plausible proposition because I haven’t got cabinet experience and because I’m hard [on Brexit],” he said.

Instead, he dreams of standing down as an MP, as he would have done had Remain won in 2016. “I would rather be able to go to work scruffy and unshaven, in shorts and flip-flops, programming computers and leading software start-ups… Rather that than [have] all the nightmare of being prime minister.”

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Baker speaks with sincerity, informed – like his idiosyncratic political style – by his faith. “Some things in this life matter more than Brexit or anything else. There’s a line in Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanity… All is vanity.’ It’s sometimes translated: ‘Meaningless, meaningless… Everything is meaningless.’ The thing that in the end really matters to me is my faith. And my family. And freedom. This situation that we’re currently in – of oppression, of misery, and fear – is wrong. It’s grinding. People shouldn’t have to suffer it.”

His is the morality CS Lewis described in Mere Christianity: a world where we are “forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong”. With the Conservative Party eating itself, can he maintain the quality of temperance that Lewis prescribed as essential for any believer?

“I am conscious that there is a slightly Old Testament spirit in me, of the wrath of God. There are bad people out there who say they accept democratic decisions and then try to overturn them. Standing up for what is right is one of the things that we’re required to do. But I wish always to love my brothers and sisters, whoever they may be.”

But his collegiality will not mean compromise. “I’m going to vote against this agreement as many times as it’s presented. It’s awful. I’m afraid I nearly voted for it – and, by God, I am glad I didn’t. I’ve felt surrender. I’ve known the taste of surrender. And I’m never tasting it again. If people want to beat me, they’re going to have to beat me again.”

Patrick Maguire is the NS’s political correspondent

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. 

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers