Book review: Francois describes how the unfashionable side won Brexit

8 Jan

Spartan Victory: The Inside Story of the Battle for Brexit by Mark Francois

“Nothing has more retarded the advancement of learning than the disposition of vulgar minds to ridicule and vilify what they cannot comprehend,” Dr Johnson once wrote.

A variant of this problem blighted the furious debates since 23rd June 2016 about how and indeed whether to implement the verdict handed down by voters in the EU Referendum.

People like Mark Francois were ridiculed and vilified. Little attempt was made to understand either him or his Essex constituents, who in the referendum had voted by a margin of 67 to 33 per cent to leave the EU.

Now Francois has written a book which anyone who is interested in why and how Brexit happened should read. An Essex man speaks, and tells us not only about the parliamentary manoeuvrings of the last few years, but about the character of a part of the British nation which cannot bear being bullied or preached at.

Pugnacious, patriotic, loyal, hard-working, quick-witted, emotional, able to distinguish immediately between friend and foe, unworried by class distinction, uninterested in correct spelling, fond of a good joke and a pint: these are among the characteristics of Essex man which leap out from Francois’s account.

He has an unfashionable love of World War Two analogies, as in this passage when he is standing against Ken Livingstone in Brent East in the 1997 general election, and a message arrives from the Conservative Party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, which informs them that the campaign is going “extremely well” and they just need to make “one last great effort in order to secure John Major a record fifth term in office for the Conservative Party”.

“What do you make of this, Mark?” the Chairman of the Conservative Association in Brent East asks Francois, to which he replies:

“Chairman, of course if you and I were in front of the rest of the Association we would have to maintain morale. However, as I have come to respect you over these last two years and we are alone, I interpret this message to mean three things: One: Berlin will never fall. Two: Our great counterattack across the Oder River begins at 05.30 tomorrow and Three: We will break the will of the enemy to resist with the use of the terror weapons and fight on to ultimate victory.”

No mainstream publisher wanted to bring out this book, so Francois with the help of Amazon has brought it out himself. This in some ways makes it a more authentic expression of his point of view: no editor has smoothed away the rough edges, corrected the grammar, toned down the jokes which might be regarded in metropolitan circles as tasteless.

One could be having a pint with Francois, perhaps in an establishment “which is about to kick off massively in about 15 minutes”, as a friend who can sense such things warned him on one occasion: the riot actually started in 12 minutes.

But this is a deeply serious book. Francois really means what he says. He wants so much to work out what Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement means that he reads it: something very few people could face doing.

One of the many virtues of this book is that he quotes the actual words of speeches and other important documents: he realises that the actual words matter, and in the case of the Withdrawal Agreement he concludes that in Article 174, the superiority of the European Court of Justice in the dispute resolution mechanism means that once ratified, this provision cannot be “over-trumped” even by Act of Parliament.

For a long time the European Reform Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs maintained internal discipline, thanks in part to a secret whipping operation run by Francois which he takes great pleasure in describing.

The ERG split on the question of whether, on 29th March 2019, to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, or to hold out against it. Some, like the Chairman of the ERG, Jacob Rees-Mogg, thought it was better, in this third Meaningful Vote, to accept the only version of Brexit that was on offer, rather than risk losing everything.

Others, such as Francois and Steve Baker (whose fiery speech to the ERG is printed in this book, and was quoted in the recent ConHome profile of him), decided to fight on to the bitter end.

These are the 28 Spartans, who got their name because, as Francois relates, soon after the second Meaningful Vote he was having dinner with Paul Goodman, editor of ConHome, who said how stressful it must be to be holding out so doggedly against unremitting pressure from the media and the Whips.

Francois agreed, and said “we have felt like the 300 Spartans guarding the pass at Thermopylae.” Goodman proceeded to use the term in a piece for ConHome, “Enter – or Rather Exit – The Spartans” (also reprinted in this book), and the word entered general use.

Goodman predicted, correctly, that “this time round, the Spartans may actually win”. May failed to get Brexit done, and Boris Johnson then got it done in a form more acceptable to the ERG.

This history is so recent that it has obscured earlier events. Francois entered the Commons in 2001 as Member for Rayleigh, in Essex, having cut his teeth as a councillor in Basildon, was soon on friendly terms with George Osborne, and served on the front bench under David Cameron both in Opposition and in Government.

He was not, as the more ignorant of his critics may imagine, a crank who refused ever to be satisfied with what the leadership was doing.

During the referendum campaign, he at first thought “the odds were very much against us winning”, but started to change his mind when he heard Osborne on the Today programme “effectively threatening the British people with a ‘punishment Budget’ if we were to vote to Leave the EU”:

“Both George and I had read history at university, and one thing that runs as a golden thread through British history is that you cannot bully us. Many have tried and all have failed. The British are an inherently reasonable people, often far more patient than many of their counterparts, but there is a point beyond which they simply will not go. And what sounded like a blatant attempt to bully or frighten the British people to vote to Remain in the EU, seemed to me a fundamental error…”

A free people cannot be coerced: Francois at this point showed a better grasp of the temper of the British people than Osborne did.

Francois was born in London in 1965, but when he was only six his parents took him to live in Basildon, a new town in Essex, to a house on an estate which looked like a prison, so was known as Alcatraz. His father did heavy manual labour, such as scrubbing out the inside of large industrial boilers.

His mother was from Italy, where they went on holiday each summer. Mark was sent to the local comprehensive school, and was one of two pupils out of the 226 who arrived that term who went to university.

When he was 13, his father gave him a copy of If, by Rudyard Kipling, and told him that “if ever I was anxious or uncertain and for whatever reason he was not around to offer advice, then I should read the poem again and it would help me decide what to do.”

The following year, his father died of a heart attack, a sudden and terrible blow from which his mother never recovered.

Before the third Meaningful Vote, Francois looked out a copy of If, read it, and found by the time he got to the end that “I was absolutely settled in my mind about what to do”.

The next day, when the ERG met to debate how to vote, Francois quoted the first stanza in his speech:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, 

But make allowance for their doubting too

Kipling is not a fashionable poet, but If still has claims to be the nation’s favourite poem, and one can imagine the emotion with which he would invest Brexit if he were alive now.

The people who take pleasure in mocking Francois will never read his book, but if they did, they might learn something.

David Leaf: In Bexley, we will keep on delivering top rated services – while Labour resorts to scaremongering

30 Nov

Cllr David Leaf is the Cabinet Member for Resources on Bexley Council.

You can tell it’s nearly Christmas, as its always at this time of the year that Bexley’s Labour councillors and their supporters, claim everything is a disaster and that the Council is about to go into bankruptcy.

They’ve actually now been making this claim every year since 2013. Then, they stated that if we were re-elected, the council would either go bankrupt or Council Tax would rise by 40 per cent – none of which happened.

Seven years since they first made that claim, we continue to be rated as an efficient effective Council which delivers value for money for our residents, and our budget plans for 2021/22 are almost completed, four months before they need to be, and our budget will be in balance. Our services continue to be among the best-rated services in local government, and the fruits of investments, such as investing in new street cleaning machinery (which Labour voted against doing), see services improving or being modernised.

Our manifesto pledges from 2018 have all been delivered, and satisfaction from the residents we serve with council services remains high. Roads are being repaired, children’s social care services are helping those in need, vulnerable adults continue to receive care, we remain number one for recycling as we have been for the last 15 years. We’ve also secured funding to build two new schools for children with special needs.

And we’re also delivering new facilities for residents – a new BMX bike park in Barnehurst, a new park, playground, and wildlife area in Sidcup and a new library is being built in Thamesmead. We also lobbied for and now have two Covid testing centres, are working with colleagues on Dartford to reduce infection rates, and are working hard to create centres for vaccinations.

By contrast, in the last month alone, Labour-run Croydon has actually gone bankrupt with a £50 million plus budget gap, Labour-run Transport for London has gone bankrupt for the second time and had to be bailed out by the Conservative Government for the second time. We see Labour-run Lewisham with a £24 million budget gap, Ealing with a £28 million budget gap, Brent with a £29 million one, and Greenwich with a £60 million budget gap over next four years.

No wonder Bexley’s Labour councillors and their supporters want to distract from that shambolic record by real life Labour administrations by trotting out these usual fictions about Bexley, alongside criticising every budget proposal while never actually putting forward any ideas or solutions of their own – the same pattern as usual of course.

What’s shocking this year is that Labour councillors who should know better are frightening the life out of council staff by making all sorts of claims about how they will all lose their jobs; our staff work really hard and to see Labour councillors almost salivating at potential job losses is sickening. Staff I speak to have been really upset by these statements, when what is needed is a calm approach.

Yes, there will be changes to the way the Council is run, or how services are provided.

This is a difficult time for local government, the impact of Covid has been felt across the sector, and across all services. Here in Bexley, much of our income from fees and charges vanished overnight – eg parking income which helps fund highways maintenance and school road safety projects disappeared overnight. There are some Labour supporters who think generating income for services like school road safety projects through parking income is wrong, but of course, as said above, they oppose generating income to help save lives without actually coming up with how to fund it instead.

Like all councils, we have had huge costs appear out of the blue – for example, from scratch we set up a food delivery network, getting hot food to vulnerable residents during the lockdown, making sure those on their own and in need of help got the support they needed. Some 3,000 meals were being delivered, and we had a team of people collecting medicines and prescriptions for those unable to leave their homes. It has cost the council millions of pounds overnight, money that is gradually being recouped from Central Government.

The test of any Council is how they find a way through sudden and unexpected events like this.

One approach is to go into panic mode, hide away and hope everything will be fine (a la Croydon) or lead from the front, make decisions quickly and calmly, work hard all the time to ensure services continue to be delivered, even if in different ways for a while. That is what we were elected to do, and what we have always done.

Yes, there are some difficult choices to make, but as Bexley residents have shown over four elections by electing us with decisive mandates, they trust us to lead the Borough, make difficult decisions when they need to be made, and ensure that we are planning for the long term while making sure services continue to be delivered. The consequences of not doing that can be seen in Croydon, Brent, Lewisham, Greenwich, and at Transport for London.