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4 February 2018

The European Research Group is the Tory group more powerful than Momentum

The highly secretive body seems to devote most of its efforts to what, if it were left-wing, would be called plotting.

By Peter Wilby

Momentum, which claims more than 31,000 members, is hardly ever out of the news. It operates, we are told, as “a party within a party” run by “sinister hard-left activists” who plot to deselect moderate Labour MPs and councillors.

We are told far less about the European Research Group – of which Jacob Rees-Mogg has just become chairman – though its statements are frequently quoted. The word “research” suggests teams of academics compiling exhaustively researched reports. I searched for them in vain. Unlike Momentum, the group has no website and seems to operate entirely through WhatsApp. Its members are Tory MPs, including some cabinet ministers, who favour a hard Brexit. It publishes nothing.

The ERG is more of a “party within a party” than Momentum. It runs its own whipping operation and tells members what they should and shouldn’t say. It co-ordinates attacks on Remain-leaning ministers such as Philip Hammond and top officials at the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility. In a rare example of a newspaper shedding light on the group, the Times described it as “the most aggressive and successful political cadre in Britain today”.

It is technically a “pooled staffing resource” for MPs, recognised by the parliamentary expenses watchdog, so that its members, estimated at between 45 and 80 in number, can claim back their subscriptions from the taxpayer. The watchdog recognises four other similar resources for Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and SNP MPs respectively. The ERG alone serves as what amounts to a party faction.

It is a highly secretive body – it refuses to disclose even the numbers and names of its members – and it seems to devote most of its efforts to what, if it were left-wing, would be called plotting. Momentum, by contrast, plots in plain sight and offers tips on how to get selected as a Labour MP or councillor – and, by implication, how to deselect the incumbents – to anybody who visits its website. Membership costs £10 against £2,000 for the ERG. The bad news is that you can’t claim it back on expenses.

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Deluded old things

An ICM/Guardian poll that questioned more than 5,000 people, an unusually large sample, found that 71 per cent of voters aged 75 or over believe Brexit will make no difference to their personal finances. Another 18 per cent believe they will be worse off. Only 11 per cent – lower than for any other age group – think they will be better off. Yet if there were another referendum, over-75s would vote for Brexit by 69 to 31 per cent.

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These results make me angry. Straightforward self-interest I can cope with. If the poor, deluded old things (of whom I shall be one in a year or two) believed that, out of the EU, they would get bigger pensions or lower inflation, I could forgive them. Many say they vote Brexit for their grandchildren’s sake. Yet nearly three in four young people would, if asked again, vote Remain, suggesting their grandparents haven’t bothered to seek their opinions. The pro-Brexit vote looks like a two-fingered gesture to younger generations from people who mostly won’t be around to suffer the consequences.

Fast food and fertility

In recent days, we have been told that the British eat the worst food in Europe – half our average diet comprises ultra-processed junk – while the Portuguese, Greeks and Italians are the healthiest eaters, with under 15 per cent of their diet coming from junk food. We are also told that the much vaunted Mediterranean diet boosts women’s fertility. So can anyone explain why Greece, Italy and Portugal have the lowest fertility rates in Europe, with fewer than 1.4 children per woman, while the UK and Ireland, champion scoffers of Big Macs and chips, sugary cakes and fizzy drinks, have among the highest, with more than 1.8 children per woman?

If their birth rate continues to fall at the present rate, Italians will be extinct by 2080, statisticians say. All that fresh fruit, fish and olive oil won’t be of much use to them then.

Hearing Hamilton

To London’s Victoria Palace Theatre for the phenomenally successful Hamilton. The hip-hop music is brilliant, the choreography dazzling. But – dare I admit this? – I can’t follow what’s going on. Though the lyrics are clearly enunciated, the words come at such a rate that my brain struggles to make sense of them. And my knowledge of the US founding fathers is probably above average, if not as good as it should be.

Producers of musical theatre, as they like to call it, want it to be taken seriously as an art form, on a par with opera. An opera programme contains a synopsis of the plot. Even the English National Opera, which sings all operas in English, displays surtitles. Shouldn’t musical theatre offer its audiences similar services?

American English

Visiting an Anglican country church the other day with a couple, both divorced, who had asked the vicar if they could remarry there, I was amused to find the Bible on the lectern open at Matthew 19: 1-12, in which the Pharisees question Jesus about divorce. Whether the vicar consulted the passage before deciding on the couple’s request (he agreed to it), I do not know. What interested me more was the wording of the famous verse 6. The King James Bible, which one no longer expects to find in an English church, had “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder”. This church uses the New International Version, supposedly written in the “common language of the American people”. It has Jesus saying “let no one separate”, which loses both the sense and rhythm of the older version.

But I prefer it to the New English Bible’s barbarous “man must not separate”, which makes Jesus sound as if he has just finished a shift writing headlines for Guardian leaders. Perhaps American English is sometimes preferable to modern English English. l

This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration