WHEN the definitive impartial history comes to be written of the 2016-19 traducing by the Government of Brexit and in the process democracy itself, Parliament and the political class generally, there will be many villains, but few heroes. A place of honour there must be, though, for Steve Baker, the ‘Conservative’ Party’s MP for Wycombe.
In some ways, this should not surprise us. In the legacy-Cameroon, pro-EU, Fabian-Blairite tribute act that the Party has become, he is a rarity: a sound-money Hayekian and adherent to Austrian-School economics; an advocate of low taxes, fiscal rectitude and public spending restraint; an unashamed champion of a smaller state, competition, and free markets, and a long-term avowed Eurosceptic who chaired Conservatives for Britain, which eventually morphed into the successful Vote Leave campaign.
A co-founder of the Cobden Centre think-tank, it’s easy to see from his own writing how he would have found no favour among the 2010-2015 Coalition’s ‘liberal’-centrist, political-triangulation obsessed, devotees of sleight-of-hand ‘Osbrowneomics’, as it came, not unjustly, to be lampooned. Though he did serve on the Treasury Select Committee, it isn’t difficult to imagine why he was left languishing, under-utilised, on the back benches. Inside the Treasury, he would have presented a formidable intellectual challenge on economic and fiscal policy to Osborne, like Brown, one the most political of Chancellors.
He was among the Tory rebels defying the Government whip to oppose Cameron by voting for a EU referendum in October 2011 and for a cut in the EU budget on October 2012, and voting against the omission of a Referendum Bill from the 2013 Queen’s Speech.
His directly Brexit-related achievements, however, start in September 2015, when, according to Tim Shipman’s All Out War, it was he who was influential in getting Cameron’s attempt to have the Referendum framed as a Yes/No question (psephologically, ‘Yes’ typically enjoys a significant advantage) rejected by the Electoral Commission, and replaced with the more neutral Remain/Leave choice. Later that month, he was part of the rebellion by 37 Tory backbenchers which helped defeat Cameron’s attempt to weaken the rules forcing ministers and officials to be neutral in the pre-Referendum ‘purdah’ period.
He upped the ante considerably after May’s post-Referendum unelected coronation, becoming chairman of the backbench European Research Group, and overseeing its activities in promoting a Brexit fully reflecting the historic 2016 vote and the visions of it which May initially (and, as it turned out, deceitfully) set out in her Lancaster House and Mansion House speeches, until made a junior minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union in June 2017.
As we now know, he and the Brexit Department’s other ministers were cynically used as camouflage, and their work ignored, by May and her Number Ten team in their backstairs operation to produce her justly infamous Chequers Plan. On its being revealed in early July 2018, unlike most of May’s largely supine, spineless, careerist Cabinet, he followed Boris Johnson and David Davis in immediately resigning on principle.
Reverting to the ERG, but now as deputy chairman, he continued oversight and co-ordination of its opposition to May’s Chequers Plan and its equally-flawed Withdrawal Agreement successor. Fortunately he also avoided the temptation, sadly irresistible to its chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg, to deliver naïve platitudes to the media along the lines of ‘the Prime Minister is an honourable woman who can be persuaded to change her mind’, when the essential untruth of both propositions has long been obvious.
He has become more even steadfast in the recent weeks and days of the near-constant interplay of procedural chicanery between Parliamentary and Government over May’s cynical attempts to sneak her (non)-‘Withdrawal’ Agreement through the Commons by repeated votes, opposing most of the options in the Indicative Votes anti-democratic farce.
Where Baker has finally earned his spurs, though, and put his eternal place on TCW’s Brexit Roll of Honour beyond dispute, is in his furious reaction in the middle of last week as, one by one, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Jacob Rees-Mogg all folded and backed May’s deal, ostensibly as the lesser of the two evils of This-Deal or No-Brexit, but almost certainly, in two of the three cases, with an eye to garnering support from soft-Brexit MPs in an imminent leadership contest.
Addressing his colleagues, and starting with a refererence to May having addressed the 1922 Committee only a few minutes earlier, Baker let rip.
‘I am consumed with a ferocious rage after that pantomime. What is our liberty for if not to govern ourselves?
‘Like all of you, I have wrestled with my conscience about what to do. But I could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river. Those fools and knaves and cowards are voting on things they don’t even understand.
‘We’ve been put in this place by people whose addiction to power without responsibility has led them to put the choice of No-Brexit or This-Deal. I may yet resign the whip than be part of this.’
It’s already been extensively publicised and quoted, and rightly. It might not attain the legendary status of Cromwell’s ‘In the name of God, go’ to the Long Parliament, invoked by Leo Amery towards Chamberlain in May 1940, but ‘What is our liberty for, if not to govern ourselves?’ won’t be quickly forgotten. Nor should it.
As this article was being written, Steve Baker was on TV saying he could now vote against the Government in a Commons Vote of No Confidence in it. With the stage we’re at now, he should not just support it if there is one, but resign the Whip and table it himself.
If by bringing this thoroughly rotten May government down, and swathes of her pseudo-‘Conservative’ MPs down with it, he somehow saved Brexit, a place on TCW’s Brexit Roll of Honour would be among the least of the honours and accolades deservedly heaped on him.