We’ve seen it all in a few years. Fire, floods, plague, war in Europe, false widow spiders. But is there anyone alive who predicted the spectacle of a grinning Steve Baker tweeting selfies with Helen McEntee and Simon Coveney?
No, of course one shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Yes, one should be grateful that a British minister is firmly pushing at the door of a protocol settlement — albeit one already unlocked by his predecessor Conor Burns, with assistance from Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair. Yet Baker’s dramatic entrance does feel like that moment when the assailant stops punching and his victim mistakes the respite for mercy and reason.
On Monday the Minister of State for Northern Ireland appeared in a high viz jacket at Larne port with a soothing message about delivering for all sides. Yet his accompanying tweet began with a threat: “The NI Protocol Bill is progressing through Parliament ...”
Yes, we are capable of holding two opposing thoughts in our heads at the same time. We are familiar with politicians who are excused abominable public choices for a higher cause: ie throwing red meat to the base to win trust and reach a settlement. If that means talking out of both sides of their mouth, so be it.
The problem with Baker is that for all his puppyish energy, his organisational flair and his startling apology for past behaviour, there is nothing to explain his whipsaw conversion to the cause of rationality in Northern Ireland, nothing to help us understand why the arsonist has suddenly emerged in the guise of chief fire officer.
His years as main driver of the European Research Group (ERG) — a secretive Tory caucus funded by public money and anonymous private donations — were not just about “ham-fisted advocacy” to get the UK out of the EU or about the “inconvenience and pain and difficulty” he caused. Brexit in itself was never enough for Baker. He was a one-man wrecking ball. He wanted the EU “wholly torn down”, claiming it was a barrier to international “free trade and peace”.
Nor is this just about unfortunate language or tone. In his time as the ERG’s galvanising ideologue he helped to foment poisonous wars within families, between neighbours, governments and nations, disseminated lies and distortion, leached the group’s toxicity into the mainstream causing unknowable suffering and alienation and perpetrated catastrophic damage to British-Irish relations, resurrecting the spectre of riots and burning buses in Northern Ireland.
He acknowledges that the group used its power to bring down governments. It was influential enough to get a private meeting before Theresa May’s pivotal red lines Lancaster House speech in 2017, in which she announced her intention of leaving both the single market and customs union, also coincidentally the ERG’s avowed aim.
It had an understanding with Donald Trump who scuppered any chance of a compromise by declaring that May’s plan for an EU customs arrangement would “probably kill” any potential trade deal with the US.
When May tried to placate Baker by bringing him into government, he flouted rules and convention by continuing to lead the ERG from inside the tent. He and his comrades paved the way for Boris Johnson, prorogued parliament in a parliamentary democracy, made continuous, reckless threats of a no-deal Brexit and called anyone who tried to reason with them enemies of the people.
In efforts to explain Baker’s reincarnation, commentators make much of his restless energy, drawing parallels between his Brexit fervour and his born-again Christian faith
When Baker pointedly backed Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, he specifically asked the DUP to accept this “compromise” arrangement for Northern Ireland. Yet in his Critic piece in 2021, he stated baldly that Dominic Cummings “said we should vote for the original withdrawal agreement without reading it, on the basis Michael Gove articulated: we could change it later”. Thus spoke the Brexiteers who insisted that the people knew what they were voting for in 2016.
In the round, this goes far beyond ham-fisted advocacy.
The destruction wreaked by Baker and other ERG geniuses such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and home secretary Suella Braverman — who woke up a party conference event with her “dream” and “obsession” to see a planeload of refugees take off for Rwanda — is incalculable. And it was all entirely predictable.
In efforts to explain Baker’s reincarnation, commentators make much of his restless energy, drawing parallels between his Brexit fervour and his born-again Christian faith, sealed by a full-immersion baptism in the sea off Cornwall. This, says one who knows him, means he reflects deeply on the moral implications of his actions.
In which case the question is why he waited so long to reveal the fruits of his reflections. Why now? Why not six years ago?
One answer is that the side desperately needs a win. The great Brexit project and its proponents are not thriving in the disinfectant of daylight.
Then there are Baker’s own burgeoning leadership ambitions, aired in July when he announced, “I’m absolutely confident that if I seize power, I’ll do a good job”. His priorities would have been delivering tax reductions and “seeing through Brexit” as he put it, but “happily I no longer need to stand Suella Braverman will deliver those priorities and more”.
Steve Baker may well help to settle the NI protocol but it’s unlikely that this leopard has changed his spots.
Sup with a long spoon.