Certain dates will go down in the annals of Brexit: 23 June 2016, 12 December 2019 and 31 January 2021. To that pantheon can now be added 6 December 2021 – for today is the day that Mark Francois, a proud Brexiteer and longtime member of the European Research Group (ERG), released his memoirs titled 'Spartan Victory: The inside story of the Battle for Brexit.'
Steerpike was among the first to get their hands on a copy, with the 464-page tome centring on Francois's life and the events around the 2016 vote to leave the European Union. Below are some of the highlights that caught the eye of Mr S, as he manfully relived those dark days of Meaningful Votes, Change UK, Olly Robbins and the Cooper-Boles amendment.
1. Francois's meeting with Robbie Gibb
Few works thus far have had kind words to say about the unhappy administration of Theresa May. Francois's book is no exception. Perhaps the best indication of how unequipped and ill-prepared her staff were is illustrated in one early 2019 encounter between the protagonist and the No. 10 Director of Communications Robbie Gibb. The two former members of the Federation of Conservative Students shared a drink at the Grenadier, with Gibb spending a quarter of an hour lecturing Francois on why he ought to back May's Brexit deal. Francois then asked a simple question: 'Have you actually read the Withdrawal Agreement yourself?'
Gibb blustered, claiming he'd 'read a summary' which 'was compiled for me by the Civil Servants' – who, as Francois pointed were 'the same Civil Servants who helped negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement in the first place' adding: 'Unlike you I have read the thing – until you do that, we are wasting each other's time.' Francois says that 'I never heard from again, until after the Battle for Brexit was over.'
2. Francois's meeting with Dominic Cummings
The same question eluded a different response in July 2019 when Francois met with Dominic Cummings. The Vote Leave chief had previously described the ERG as 'a metastasising tumour' and 'useful idiots for Remain.' Cummings told Francois that as 'no one Parliament can bind another' the government ought to vote for some elements of the Withdrawal Agreement before changing it after the election.
Francois claims he showed Cummings his copy after being told the latter had not read the document. When they reached Article 174, which laid out the superiority of the European Court of Justice in the dispute resolution mechanism, Johnson's adviser simply exclaimed 'Who the fuck negotiated that?' Francois replied: 'Metaphorically – you did! Or at least your predecessors in No. 10.'
3. The 'Buddies' system
Historians and geeks of parliamentary procedure will find plenty of interest in Francois' account of the Spartans' unofficial whipping system on Theresa May's deal. Given there is only one Whips Office, Steve Baker suggested calling the rebel ringleaders 'the Buddies' instead; Francois was named 'Chief Buddy' and Baker his deputy. The other 'Buddies', who were unknown to each other, were David Jones, Laurence Robertson, Theresa Villiers, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Adam Holloway, Charlie Elphicke, Simon Clarke, Michael Tomlinson, Ross Thomson and one other anonymous MP. Like the whips, each 'Buddy' had a section of the parliamentary party, with Baker organising a spreadsheet of each MP's voting intentions.
Every MP was graded from +5 to -5 on their likelihood to vote against the Treaty. Longtime Eurosceptic Bill Cash was given a +5 rating; lifelong Europhile Ken Clarke was ranked as -5. According to Francois, 'Whipping is rather like bespoke tailoring' Intelligence was shared with the senior members of the ERG on a conference call held every Sunday evening. Such calls were nicknamed the 'Five Families' conference call by supporter David Canzini, in reference to The Godfather's five leading gangster families in New York.
4. How Francois beat out Boris
Certain parliamentary vintages loom large in the Tory imagination: the 1950 election saw Ted Heath, Iain Macleod, Enoch Powell and Reggie Maudling enter the House; in 2001 it was the turn of Boris, David Cameron, George Osborne and Francois himself. Being part of such a memorable intake gives him a fair few brushes with future greatness. His first Oral Question was nearly derailed by a backbencher by the name of George Osborne whispering beforehand 'Remember Rule one of all political life – don't fuck it up' just as Francois was called.
But Francois' successful selection for his current seat of Rayleigh in that election came at a price: he beat the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he too was searching for a seat in 2000 as the then editor of The Spectator. On the day of the selection meeting, Johnson chose to walk the ten minute distance from Rochford train station – a decision which coincided with freak weather and a 'shower of almost neo-biblical rain'. This meant he was 'quite literally, soaked to the skin.' Handed a large towel by the association he was still dripping water from the ends of his cuffs and hair, which, having been dried roughly with a towel, 'had risen up to make him look like something out of the Lion King.'
Sadly, despite a very amusing speech with virtually no reference to the actual constituency, the first question Johnson faced bowled him clean out: 'What is your opinion of PPG3?'. This was a reference to the planning policy guidance note 3, which governed what could be built on the Green Belt. It promoted the immortal reply: 'Yup, erm, PPG3. Seminal. Fundamentally important to everything that the modern Conservative Party is trying to achieve... Never heard of it!' By contrast, Francois, a local councillor, gave a comprehensive reply; Johnson never made it to the second round.
Still, as the current backbencher notes: 'I have teased him about this a number of times down the years – which perhaps explains why I do not serve in his Cabinet and most probably never will.'
5. IDS helped Johnson survive the ERG
After Theresa May resigned in 2019, the ERG organised a 'job interview' between Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson to see who would win the group's backing. At his first encounter Raab made the mistake of trying to catch out Sir Bill Cash on a point of European law. Johnson had two meetings, which he described as 'my viva' – an Oxford term for a detailed oral exam – over two different hours.
At the second encounter, Johnson finally secured the Spartans' backing. His winning response? Answering Francois's question that 'if you become Prime Minister' will the UK leave the EU at the end of October 'come hell or high water' with the retort 'If we don't, this party will soon cease to exist'. It was a popular answer. Yet as Francois notes, 'I discovered sometime afterwards that Boris had been very effectively 'coached' for his two interviews with the ERG' by former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith. After an initial rehearsal had not gone well, IDS apparently said to him: 'You are going to need much better answers than that if you are going to get Baker and Francois to support you Boris, let alone Bill Cash!'
6. Bercow v Francois
In an ironic reflection of their later politics, in their younger days both Francois and future Commons Speaker John Bercow ran to be the last chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students in 1986, prior to the organisation being abolished by Norman Tebbit for, er, being too right wing. As a Bristol undergraduate, Francois was selected as the moderates' candidate on 'something of a suicide mission' against the then ascendant Libertarian faction behind Bercow, now a Labour member.
Francois reflects that by the time he reached the actual conference he was nicknamed the 'Member for Bristol Niagara'. His hustings speech was interrupted by Bercow supporters in the first three rows putting up umbrellas as if to emphasise his 'wetness.' Bercow described Francois as 'intellectually knee high to a grasshopper' and won the contest by 197 votes to 123. Who'd have guessed the sides they'd be on some 30 years later during the Brexit debate?