Why the ERG is changing its tune on a Brexit deal

The so-called Spartans want to dispel the narrative that their first preference is for a no-deal exit.

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Many people struggle to take speeches by Mark Francois entirely seriously. The deputy chairman of the European Research Group is fond of a colourful turn of phrase or questionable military metaphor. So it was today, when, along with DUP leader Arlene Foster and former Tory cabinet minister John Redwood, he addressed the uber-Eurosceptic Bruges Group on the Conservative conference fringe. 

Much of what Francois said was characteristic, and much of it is already being mocked. That isn’t surprising. His forthcoming memoir, he revealed, is to be titled: You Couldn’t Make It Up! The memes write themselves. But there is a risk we overlook something quite important: Francois went out of his way to stress that he and the 27 other Conservative MPs who voted against the Brexit withdrawal agreement three times were open to voting for a deal.

He said in his speech: 

“If there is a deal, as a so-called Spartan, if it means we genuinely leave the EU on Halloween, I will be the first in the aye lobby. But if it means we don’t, I will be against it and no amount of brow-beating will change my mind.”

Later, in response to a question from the floor, he added: 

“If there is some form of deal, be it over the backstop or anything else, I and my colleagues will look at it carefully.”

 “My acid test will be: does it mean we genuinely leave the EU? I want nothing more than to see the sun rise on 1 November on a free country.”

The shift in tone is deliberate. Francois and the rest of the ERG leadership believe the only way Brussels and the EU27 will shift is if the group makes clear that it is not completely averse to any deal. Expect to hear people like Francois and fellow Tory Steve Baker stressing not their willingness to countenance no-deal, but their preference for a deal. They will also stress that the rancorous scenes in Westminster last week mean that significant Labour support for a deal will not materialise, meaning Boris Johnson cannot chart a viable course to a majority without their votes. 

But, as Francois said this afternoon, that does not mean the ERG’s top brass are willing to accept anything. It looks more likely than not that whatever agreement the Prime Minister manages to strike with the EU won’t satisfy them. But they calculate that appearing conciliatory increases the chances of Johnson securing an accord that will.

And if not? Downing Street will hope that a scenario dismissed by senior ERG MPs as wishful thinking will squeeze the number of rebels to single figures: “That most of us will just fold and vote for any old deal." Though some of their number privately admit they are moving towards that very position, the Spartans' new strategy is as much an attempt to dispel that narrative as it is a bid to create a new one.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.