‘The thing you have to remember about Steve Baker is he’s been on television more in the past six months than for the previous ten years of his career,’ said the Minister.
‘They all have. They’re getting wall-to-wall coverage. They have an instant path to No 10. Why would they want to give that up?’
Steve Baker has no intention of giving any of it up. This weekend the self-styled leader of the Brexit Survivalist MPs is marshalling his troops for their final stand.
The ERG are fracturing. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith and other senior members are preparing to reluctantly back May’s deal.
The DUP are also poised to move into line.
But Baker remains fanatically resolute. On Wednesday evening he stood up in the House of Commons and issued a passionate rallying cry on behalf of the British people.
Steve Baker MP, a leader of the right-wing ERG group, shows no intention of giving up any of the limelight or coverage devoted to him over Brexit
Brexit has given a big stage to some very small men. The working class Wycombe MP appeared in this strange video about self defence training
‘When Meaningful Vote Three comes back I will see to it we honour… honour what we owe to them, to keep voting this down,’ he pledged, his voice cracking with emotion, ‘however many times it’s brought back, whatever pressure we’re under.’
Whether the British people will thank him for this commitment to extending their Brexit agony indefinitely is another matter.
As is the question of whether – prior to this crisis – they were aware of his existence at all.
One of the great Brexit tragedies is that it has provided a large stage for some very small men. And this morning, as the big ERG beasts prepare to make a grudging accommodation with reality, Baker bestrides it like a Lilliputian.
Inside Government they have given up trying to understand what motivates the final handful of hardline holdouts.
‘I was talking to one of them in the tea room,’ a May loyalist told me ‘and I said, “OK, you have your view. But for the sake of argument let’s think about if you’re wrong on how this plays out. If the EU doesn’t fold, and No Deal goes wrong. What happens then?”
A bizarre video shows the Wycombe MP in one-on-one combat with an instructor from the ‘Combat Academy’ in 2015
There’s little doubt Baker views himself as a man of action. He lists his hobbies as skydiving, motorcycling and ‘fast catamaran sailing’.
‘And they just looked at me and said, “I’m not wrong.” ’
But for those of us still trying to comprehend how a tiny group of committed Brexiteers have come to represent the final obstacle to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, Baker is an interesting – if enigmatic – case study.
Born in St Austell, of working-class, Liberal-voting parents, Baker attended his local comprehensive school before joining the RAF as an engineer. His wife Beth also served in the RAF as a senior medical officer, completing tours of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some who have worked with him say his uncompromising commitment to what he calls ‘honest money, free trade and peace’ was shaped during his time working on global financing and asset servicing platforms for Lehman Brothers immediately prior to the crash.
While one Minister told me ‘he won’t be happy till he’s done to the Government what he did to Lehmans’, Baker himself believes his time there proved to him that the fundamental problem with capitalism was too many people didn’t properly understand how it worked.
The brief tussle ends with Brexit’s great white hope face down in the mud, his legs jerking in the air
But another Government insider thinks the key to understanding Baker’s political world-view is his time working as an engineer on RAF Tornado and Jaguar jets.
‘Baker has never actually wanted to be the leader,’ a Whitehall official tells me. ‘He prefers to be working away behind the scenes, pulling the strings. He desperately wants to be seen as this great political strategist.’
A Minister with an armed services background frames it slightly differently. ‘In the RAF, the pilots are the stars. And Steve does like being the centre of attention all of a sudden. Everyone in the country has heard of Douglas Bader. But how many people could name his ground-crew.’
Last week, Baker caused anger amongst ERG colleagues after urging them to decline media appearances given the sensitivity of the Brexit vote, only to then pop up on a number of broadcasts himself.
There’s little doubt Baker views himself as a man of action.
The ERG are fracturing. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith and other senior members are preparing to reluctantly back May’s deal. The DUP are also poised to move into line
In a slightly surreal YouTube video he posted himself, he can be seen engaging in a hand-to-hand fight with an unarmed combat instructor. The brief tussle ends with Brexit’s great white hope face down in the mud, his legs jerking in the air.
He lists his hobbies as skydiving, motorcycling and ‘fast catamaran sailing’.
Yet, despite these faintly comical displays of machismo, Baker is actually popular with his colleagues. ‘I’ll never speak ill of Steve,’ says a Cabinet Minister who finds himself on the opposite side of the Brexit divide. ‘Whatever our differences, he’s always been polite and honest with me.’
That is also reflected in the fact he is seen as a man of genuine conviction. A born-again Christian, he was baptised by full body immersion off the coast of Cornwall.
‘What you need to understand about Steve is he’s on a mission now. And he wants to deliver on it. That’s not something we want eradicated from politics. But it also means, at times like this, it’s very hard to find a route to a compromise,’ says another Minister. Baker once told a journalist: ‘I believe God means us to live in liberty. And that is what drives me. I believe that liberty is self-government.’
Which is why he and his fellow Brexit Survivalists are about to launch a final desperate attempt to sabotage everything they once held dear. They have to. This is their moment of destiny. Their only moment of destiny. The one chance they have – and will ever have – to carve their names into history.
The currency of politics is power. And for this brief instant they are flush with it. It is not about honouring the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit. It is not really about Brexit at all.
It is about a small group of 20 or so men and women who have suddenly discovered they matter. That their views finally count. Their actions finally count. For the first and last time a whole nation – hell, the whole world – is hanging on what they do and say.
The serious politicians can confidently stride by this narrow window of opportunity. The likes of Iain Duncan Smith and David Davis have already helped shape our national discourse. The Jacob Rees-Moggs, Boris Johnsons and Dominic Raabs harbour realistic hopes of doing so in the future.
But when the current political cycle ends, Steve Baker and his colleagues will be forgotten. The cold waters of political anonymity and obscurity will close over their heads for ever. That is a hard thing for any man to accept. In the Division lobby last week Baker was overheard telling a friend: ‘If I have to campaign for 20 years for a pure Brexit I’ll do it, rather than vote for this deal.’
This is indeed his moment of destiny. Give it up? I wouldn’t. Would you?