Terina Hine assesses the hard-right libertarian Tories influencing the government to put safety last
Tory lockdown sceptics are on the march. Covid vaccines promised freedom, the Prime Minister promised that “things will be very different by the spring” and Matt Hancock spoke of the “great British summer” just around the corner. But that was before the vaccine-dodging variants were discovered.
Now those freedoms are threatened once again by a rapidly mutating virus and a need to keep the population safe. Or, as some would have it, by an overzealous, health and safety obsessed, nanny state, that is “going full North Korea” (Charles Walker, MP).
Boris Johnson is due to set out his road map for exiting England’s lockdown in the week beginning February 22. The pressure is on. Decisions on loosening restrictions will be based on a delicate balance between politically acceptable infection levels on the one hand and keeping a lid on a Tory rebellion on the other.
Between now and then the lockdown sceptics and “economy first” brigade will push to open the economy and relax Covid restrictions entirely - regardless of new variants and the fact that most of the population, including the most vulnerable, will not be fully vaccinated. The Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of MPs lead the charge, demanding the government “get rid of restrictions completely” by the end of May.
Members of the CRG are not known for their medical acumen: they have dismissed face masks, promoted herd immunity, and argued that the death of the old and vulnerable is an acceptable sacrifice on the altar of the economy. They have questioned the stats on case numbers and rubbished scientific advice.
Yet with roughly 60 members they constitute a tiny minority of the 365 Tory MPs, so why are they so important? It appears that what they lack in numbers they make up for in influence. Influence which is amplified by the right-wing press.
And the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is their great enabler. While not of their number, Sunak has consistently argued for fewer restrictions and challenged the Sage advice at key moments. It was pressure from Sunak that led to the rejection of a mid-September circuit break (allowing case numbers to increase dramatically). It is no surprise therefore that the CRG have repeatedly floated the idea of Sunak as Johnson’s successor.
So who are these troublesome Tory MPs?
Since early May the most vocal opposition to the Covid restrictions has come from Graham Brady, Charles Walker and Steve Baker. All three are members of the backbench 1922 Committee’s executive, and the first two are officers - chair and vice-chair to be precise. Baker, the third of the chief sceptics, is most likely responsible for setting up the Covid Recovery Group, he was after all the “organisational genius” behind its forerunner, the hugely influential European Research Group, the ERG.
The ERG, famous for its outspoken, hard-right Brexiteers, pushed for a no-deal Brexit and was in large part responsible for the downfall of Theresa May. Boris Johnson has good reason to fear its offspring.
Membership of the CRG is not confined to the hard-right Brexiteers as some have suggested, nor have all its members been opposed to all Covid restrictions. With the notable exception of veteran MP Sir Desmond Swayne and its three main leaders, most of the group have kept a low profile. That the CRG is not homogenous has added to its weight.
But there is no doubt that its leadership and most vocal members come from the hard-right libertarian wing of the party. And it is their view of the world, their ideology, that feeds the opposition to lockdown.
The group’s chair, is Mark Harper. On the face of it an unusual choice: a loyal MP since 2005, former Chief Whip and leadership candidate, he rarely courts controversy. Although in charge of immigration when the ‘Go Home’ vans provoked public outrage, and disability when the DWP brought in the unpopular PIP reforms, Harper avoided being publicly tarnished in either role. Instead he is known for being a fluent speaker, unflappable and mild mannered.
With Harper as its chair the CRG is given a gloss of respectability and a wider appeal. But lurking just below the surface the libertarian underpinning of group is clear.
Look no further than vice-chair Steve Baker, the self-styled “hard-man of Brexit” and former chair and fixer-in-chief of the ERG. Baker is a staunch libertarian and lockdown sceptic with links to a number of hard-right groups, and a history of accepting dodgy donations.
He has long standing connections with and has received funds from the ultra-conservative social campaign group American Principles in Action (America’s “top defender of the family” known for its anti-LGBT and pro-life agenda) and is a member of the Tory right’s equivalent, the Cornerstone Group (motto: Faith, Flag, and Family). He has links with the American Liberty Fund (an anti-environmental, pro-corporate lobby group) and has written about the “uncertainties” around climate science. Until recently he was a member of the the libertarian, free-trade pressure group the Freedom Association.
Dubious donations litter his parliamentary career: he controversially accepted a donation from the shady Constitutional Research Council (a group accused using “dark money” for political influence). According to the MPs’ register of interests, Baker has been paid thousands by the arms industry while working as an MP and lobbying on their behalf, he even ran an all party group which promoted the industry whilst in receipt of their funds. In 2011 Baker was embroiled in a scandal after taking a luxurious, all expenses paid trip to Equatorial Guinea, only to return and defend the country’s abysmal human right’s record.
Baker’s ideology is equally dubious: he has raised questions about the reliability of climate science and supports the laissez-faire Austrian school of economics - where markets reign supreme and government spending is viewed as harmful to the economy. In 2010 he founded the Cobden Centre, a libertarian, free-trade think tank which promotes individualism and a return to the gold standard.
In keeping with Baker’s questioning of science, and the Austrian School’s rejection of mathematical modelling, the CRG have repeatedly dismissed Sage’s modelling of the Covid data - one of the CRG’s main demands being an end to the “monopoly on advice by government scientists”.
An equally vociferous opponent to Covid restrictions is Sir Graham Brady. Having the chair (and vice-chair) of the king-making 1922 Committee opposing government policy must be of grave concern to No.10.
Brady has frequently claimed that lockdowns impose a "devastating cycle" of prohibitions which may be costing more lives than they are saving; in November he called them evil and likened the UK to an authoritarian state, saying,
“If these kinds of measures were being taken in any totalitarian country around the world we would be denouncing it as a form of evil.”
Like Baker, Brady has links to the hard-right of the party and form on dodgy expenses claims - including a notorious trip to the Cayman Islands after which he was happy to promote secrecy for corporate tax avoiders. As deputy chair of the Centre for Policy Studies, the think tank behind Thatcherism, which proudly claims to have curbed the power of trade unions and led the way in privitisation and the shrinking of the state, he and Baker make natural bedfellows.
The third amigo, Charles Walker - vice-chair of the ’22 Committee and a member of the Conservative party’s governing body - is another Tory heavy weight, and one who doesn’t mince his words.
Walker accused the government of trying to “abolish death” (although as we lead the world in Covid deaths they have spectacularly failed to do so) and claimed in a speech in the Commons that “not all deaths are equal” and “not every death is a tragedy”. He has accused Sage of trying to “ramp up” the “fear factor” and suggested we are drifting “into an authoritarian coercive state.”
And in reference to the latest restrictions on international travel, Walker had what can only be called an hysterical outburst, shouting for Boris Johnson to “get a grip” on his “bloody secretaries of state” accusing the government of not simply changing the goal posts, but ripping them up and carrying them to another field.
In January Steve Baker hinted at a leadership challenge - at the time it misfired and fizzled out within a couple of hours.
But now the CRG has begun to seriously flex its muscles. Sage member Professor Spiegelhalter correctly predicted on 23 January: “By this time next month, there is going to be the mother of all arguments.” The PM’s worry is that this time more reticent members of the group will join in.
Once again there is a danger that Tory dogma, libertarian ideology and a small factional group of backbenchers will have a disproportionate impact on the direction of government policy.
Will a weak and indecisive PM, with libertarian instincts of his own, capitulate or hold his nerve? We will soon find out.
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