As Westminster heads towards the end of the prime minister’s worst week yet, there is only one clear winner as the fog of war lifts.
It’s not Sir Keir Starmer – Labor are worried about their lack of impact at the moment.
Nor are it the 148 conservative rebels who want Boris Johnson goneamong whom there is an uneasy stasis amid disagreements over methods, timelines and alternative candidates for prime minister.
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Instead, the group increasingly at the helm of British politics is the European Research Group: the few dozen Tory MPs at the heart of key turning points of the past decade – securing the Brexit referendum, the assassination of Theresa May and the pursuit of a no-deal Brexit. .
It was this caucus that seized the opportunity offered by the vote of confidence.
They have used the political uncertainty this has caused to increase their influence, seizing the steering wheel of state and setting the country on course for a huge and all-consuming row over Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The ERG already knows that it has won the battle to get the government where it wants it.
The fruits of Brexiteers’ success will be visible to the rest of us on Monday with the publication of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – legislation stripping away elements of the Brexit settlement aimed at preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland.
When it arrives, it will be explosive and decisive: this bill will be opposed by almost all the opposition parties, a majority of the House of Lords, the countries of the European Union and the Commission, the Biden administration and a large part of the rebellious conservatives.
Even DUP leaders have privately suggested there is no need to go as far as Mr Johnson’s bill would take on Monday.
At times last month, even Mr Johnson was unwilling to pursue such a major confrontation.
Downing Street told reporters the Prime Minister considered it less important to limit the role of the European Court of Justice in the protocol and end tax harmony than to deal with practical issues around the border of the Irish Sea, which the EU has indicated its willingness to discuss.
But the ERG disagreed, and since the vote of confidence the Prime Minister is now convinced that following their example is essential to his survival.
Monday’s rebellion changed everything.
The closer-than-expected margin of victory – 211 to 148 – means four in 10 Tory MPs don’t trust this sitting prime minister and want him out.
As a result, Mr Johnson’s priority this week was figuring out who he could count on in Parliament in the weeks and months ahead.
The group that emerged offering a helping hand was the ERG.
The ERG will now provide the “internal party majority”, a source said.
They will strengthen him in turbulent times and ensure that there is not a majority of Tory MPs against him.
The condition of their backing is that he pursue a tough-as-nails approach to scrap large parts of the Brexit deal.
In 2019, Mr Johnson agreed that Northern Ireland would remain linked to the European Union, subject to EU law with EU-mandated checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Now the government wants to end that, and Monday’s bill will give the UK government the power to get rid of much of that.
“That issue is understated. But it would be worth betting that Northern Ireland Protocol is ultimately what finishes him off – not by-elections or changes to party rules to hasten his ousting,” he said. said a member of the government.
Several sources told Sky News this was the week the debate swung in favor of the ERG.
Before Monday, a large minority in the cabinet favored a hard line.
Ms Truss, Dominic Raab, the Deputy First Minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, and Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, were leading the charge to legislate to end the role of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland.
“The Prime Minister was initially quite nervous and not totally convinced this was the way to go because there would be too much fallout and too much pain,” a source said.
“But there was no domestic political danger, so he was prepared to be more circumspect.”
But they added that last month’s stance “wouldn’t have left anyone happy”.
The DUP, which is looking for an excuse to return to power-sharing at Stormont, would have had ‘nothing to go back’; the ERG reportedly said it was “not good enough”.
However, losing the support of four out of 10 Tory MPs in Monday’s poll meant Mr Johnson had to choose sides in this fight rather than pursue his preferred approach of unconstructive ambiguity and vague threats.
“The vote swayed it quite comfortably, so it’s now in an ERG-friendly place.”
The row unfolded at two meetings of the cabinet sub-committee on UK global strategy this week.
Upgrade Secretary Michael Gove raised questions about the legality of the move, while Chancellor Rishi Sunak discussed the economic outcome of different scenarios.
The Chancellor’s approach in particular has failed to impress the Brexit caucus, which could be important in a future leadership race.
The leak to Sky News of legal advice from the Government’s top lawyer, Sir James Eadie, has helped poison what I have been told is already an uncomfortable discussion even further.
But in the background, the Prime Minister’s political adviser, David Canzini, was quick to help Mr Johnson conclude that he could not dodge this problem: he must choose a side and the only reliable partners available – given the position of so many cabinet members. – was to support a radical approach.
Having Truss, Raab, Braverman, Kwarteng lined up with the ERG against him at this point was too dangerous.
Thus, despite some reluctance, Mr. Johnson accepted a bill now intended to satisfy the ERG.
The political dangers are enormous.
Some believe Mr Johnson lacks the long-term strength to resist international and domestic pressure to put the legislation on the law book – but know he may not survive as Prime Minister if he does. it fails and the ERG withdraws its support.
This Bill could take 18 months to pass through both Houses of Parliament if the Lords reject it and the Prime Minister has to force it through with the Parliament Act.
Meanwhile, the likely international reaction – at a time of rising global prices and war in Ukraine – will be intense and intensify over time as Washington plans to join Brussels in its bid to punish Britain for his position.
And could 40 or more Tory MPs rebel on this given this week’s rebellion, depriving the Prime Minister of a majority for the legislation?
“The hubris of English nationalism is clearly visible in NI and people making their decisions,” said a Tory MP, indicating there is a depth of sentiment in parts of the party that matches Brexiteers.
This could all end in flames.
Now that the Fixed-Term Parliament Act has been scrapped, Mr Johnson can turn votes on the legislation into a vote of confidence, triggering a general election if he loses.
The stakes are about to get very high.
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