It is not uncommon for MPs to reach out to journalists. Parliamentary support on new bills is typically amassed through media coverage. Simplistically speaking, if you can convince a publication to run an interest piece on new legislation, embark on a successful crusade of public support, have constituents pressure their MPs into engagement, then, typically, the Commons will respond favourably when it comes to voting.
The integral cog in this mechanism is consistent media coverage. From the conglomerate CEO in a London coffee house, to the fisherman in the Aberdeenshire town of Peterhead, a successful campaign will have all corners of the country engaged.
Therefore, backers-of-the-bill need to be quoted in every newspaper, visually on every news channel, and audibly boom from every radio station. The key word here is coverage: media coverage equals country coverage. The more outlets carrying your cause, the more likely you’ll be a talking point later that day in the Dog & Duck.
The formula is one tried and tested by Brexit-backing Eurosceptics: The European Research Group. How do you get the country behind a no-deal Brexit? A media storm.
It is through this mechanism that a small clan have catapulted spanners into the spools of the Conservative machinery, dismembered the Party’s wheels from its axles, and driven the country ever closer to its no-deal Brexit fate. Names relatively unheard of until recent months have become notorious in the newsroom. Steve Baker, Marcus Fysh, and Crispin Blunt have graced our televisions in fervour and fury, cementing the Eurosceptic cause into the public narrative.
Fortuitously, as I’m typing this, I receive a text message from Steve Baker, Deputy Chairman of the European Research Group. ‘Heroic work’ by Sajid, it reads. Attached: A link to Baker’s Twitter profile. It’s a reference to the Home Secretary’s appearance on Andrew Marr Sunday morning, neatly clipped and bordered with the hashtag #StandupforBrexit.
These text messages are broadcast to 110 journalists, or at least that was the number he told me it was when he added me to the rounds back in November. They are received by the likes of Laura Kuenssberg, political editor of the BBC, and are in ‘ready-to-tweet’ format. Oftentimes, within three minutes of receiving each message, the content will be tweeted out by Kuenssberg, to her near-one million twitter followers. The intent of these broadcasts are clear: keep your message in the pocket of major journalists, keep your voice on every major broadcaster.
Baker’s dissemination of information has been the subject of media frenzy. His texting rounds were behind the hysterical crowd of journalists gathered to witness Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ‘spontaneous’ no-confidence announcement back in November. They were also used to push a pamphlet detailing calls for the planned Irish backstop to be replaced by 'alternative arrangements' - an amendment that is now considered the Party line.
Though prolific behind the scenes, publicly, Baker’s presence is comparatively truant. Rather, his broadcasts include instructions for ‘media appearances’, detailing contact details for Eurosceptics available for interview.
On the 1st December, a message detailed ‘7 new faces write Britain deserves better than the PM’s deal’. Attached were the personal mobile numbers of Suella Braverman, Ben Bradley and Lee Rowley, amongst others, with Baker’s personal seal of approval on their media booking.
Again on January 8th, Baker writes: ‘Ultra Loyalist Greg Hands - [number] - writes an excoriating analysis of the EU perspective on the deal which will harden opinion’ and on January 14th: ‘The Chair of the Procedure Committee, Charles Walker, is evidently livid and may give interesting comment’. Of course, the personal number for Walker was attached.
Centrist Conservatives have long-warned of the influence the group holds. Back in February of 2018, Anna Soubry told Newsnight that 'unless Theresa stands up and sees off these people she is in real danger of losing huge swathes of not just the Parliamentary party but the Conservative party,' clarifying the next day her allegations were referring to ’35 hard Brexiteers’ that Theresa May is in ‘hock’ to.
The ERG’s activities are also on Labour’s radar. Early last year, Jon Trickett, the Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, wrote to IPSA, the expenses watchdog, challenging the 'secretive and entirely politically biased group' of misusing public money to undermine government ministers. IPSA determined the activity ‘unusual’ but ‘not emotively phrased’; thus, permissible, but only just.
Recently, Baker told the European Scrutiny Committee that ‘media portrayal of those supporting Brexit has been despicable’. An interesting comment, coming from the conductor.