The Leave versus Remain battle is morphing into a struggle between the British people and the Establishment. So says Mark Francois, the pugnacious Eurosceptic who is Vice Chairman of the European Reform Group and MP for Rayleigh and Wickford.
In this interview, he expresses confidence that the people will get the Brexit they voted for, despite the best efforts of senior politicians and civil servants to thwart the process. Francois would like Ollie Robbins, the senior official conducting negotiations for Theresa May, to be conducted by river to the Tower of London.
Asked what concessions the ERG wants in order for its members to vote for May’s deal, Francois replied: “The Prime Minister would have to ask the European Union to ditch the entire backstop. Not tweak it, but ditch it.”
But Francois, who was wearing the tie of the Army Benevolent Fund, recognises that after Brexit, the two sides within the Conservative Party will have to come back together again: “And that’s partly why, after we had the No Confidence vote, I delivered a small case of fairly decent Margaux to the Whips’ Office, and put it on the Deputy Chief Whip’s desk with a little note that said ‘To the Office, with the compliments of Dad’s Army’.”
ConHome: “Why do you feel so strongly about Brexit?”
Francois: “When I was the Shadow Europe Minister, and I did the Lisbon Treaty for us [in 2008], William Hague was the Shadow Foreign Secretary…”
ConHome: “Up until then, what were your views?”
Francois: “I was quite sceptical about the EU and the direction it was taking. I made my maiden speech on 4th July 2001 against the Treaty of Nice.
“William made that fantastic speech [on Lisbon] at Second Reading. I remember when he delivered it. Everybody was nearly crying [with laughter]. I think he got the Speccy Speech of the Year, quite rightly.
“We then came down to debating the hard detail of the treaty, all 300 pages, and that kind of was my job. And we spent 14 nights, it’s seared on my memory, debating the hard detail of the Lisbon Treaty.
“And it soon became apparent that we couldn’t change so much as a punctuation mark. Parliament had been completely neutered. And for me that was the epiphany.
“And after that whole process I thought, ‘We are no longer running our own country here. We have got to get out of this.’ Really, that was when, to mix metaphors, I crossed the Rubicon.”
ConHome: “How are you adjusting to fame?”
Francois: “I don’t think famous is the word. I’ve done more media in the last couple of months than in the rest of my 18 years put together.
“But if you had told me when I walked through Carriage Gates 18 years ago as a wide-eyed, fresh-faced newbie, delighted to have been elected as an MP, that I would one day be involved in a No Confidence motion against a Conservative Prime Minister, I would never have believed it.”
ConHome: “Will you always back the Prime Minister in a Vote of Confidence in the House, as everyone did the other day, regardless of what she does?”
Francois: “Well some people saw the intervention that I made on the Prime Minister, and Simon Hoare’s very funny quip. He is quick, Simon.
“And I said, you know, I’m a Conservative first and last, and I and my colleagues in the ERG were not going to do Jeremy Corbyn any favours.”
ConHome: “Even if she extended Article 50 or something like that?”
Francois: “Well we had said, all along, that if Labour tried a snap Vote of Confidence we would vote with the Prime Minister, and we kept our word.
“And I can’t see Corbyn doing this again in a hurry after getting the drubbing he got last time.”
ConHome: “Now what in fact is going to satisfy the ERG?”
Francois: “We have said consistently that because the Withdrawal Agreement is a draft international treaty, which if the House were to approve it and then ratify it in Parliament, would bind us forever in international law, the only thing that would satisfy us is amendments to the treaty text itself.
“The Prime Minister would have to ask the European Union to ditch the entire backstop. Not tweak it, but ditch it. And then in turn the EU would have to agree.
“Now even if they did that, there are other issues of concern, like the 39 billion for nothing, like the continuing role of the ECJ in some areas, like what’s called the Joint Committee, which is a very powerful committee that the Withdrawal Agreement establishes.
“But our principal ask is that the backstop must go and must be replaced by alternative language in favour of a comprehensive free trade agreement.”
ConHome: “You reckon that’s gettable if gone for in the right way?”
Francois: “Well what we’re asking for is a big ask. We recognise that…”
ConHome: “But is it an achievable ask in your judgment?”
Francois: “The EU saw the majority – the largest defeat of a government in history. So if they’re not prepared to bend, this Withdrawal Agreement is not going through the House of Commons.
“I think they now realise that. I’m told that result sent shock-waves through the Commission, because they’d been told by people like Olly Robbins it was only going to be 40 or 50.
“It was a bell that rang across Europe.”
ConHome: “But is there a danger of the ERG overplaying its hand?”
Francois: “Well The Times and The Daily Telegraph described the treaty as a surrender document, as it’s currently configured. The House of Commons has never surrendered in its history and it never will.”
ConHome: “So why do some Tory MPs think we should go along with this?”
Francois: “Well every colleague must look into their heart and decide what to do. But 118 Tories – even Diane Abbott knows that’s a big number – voted against it, because a lot of them have actually read it, and they know what’s in it.
ConHome: “How united is the ERG? Because there are presumably some who are more pugnacious – you give an impression of tremendous pugnacity – and there are some who are more conciliatory, and who think, well, the Tory Party’s got to be a broad church, we’ve got to stick together, half a loaf is better than no bread, and there’s a danger of losing Brexit if we hold out for a perfect deal.”
Francois: “Well the ERG is not a Stalinist organisation. And we’re not in the business of waterboarding our colleagues. But I think that result showed you that people feel very strongly on this.
“After all, this is the destiny of our country, and if you don’t feel strongly about that, what are you going to feel strongly about? All logic suggests that if they ask pretty much the same question they’ll get pretty much the same answer.
“And I’m sure that the Government realise that.”
ConHome: “The Remainers are making some sort of a fight-back against you. How do you deal with that?”
Francois: “Well my own impression is this thing is morphing from just Leave versus Remain to the People versus the Establishment.
“Because there are some Members of Parliament, there are certainly a number of senior civil servants, who have never accepted the result of the referendum, and maybe never will.
“And they have done whatever they can to undermine Brexit, and to try to stop it from happening.
“Now I don’t think the rest of the party will stand idly by and allow this to continue ad infinitum. And it’s not a secret that a number of MPs are in trouble with their constituency associations.
“And that’s nothing to do with me or the ERG. That’s their own troops basically beginning to hold them to account.
“And more fundamentally than that, I think the British people won’t put up with it. We saw the reaction on Question Time to Isabel Oakeshott’s comment.
“I think the British people, if they see MPs using parliamentary trickery to try and overturn the people’s decision in the referendum, I think there’ll be serious protests.
“We’re British, so I don’t think we’ll have people in yellow jackets trying to burn Oxford Street, although if you remember the poll tax riots in the 1980s they were quite violent.
“But I think you’ll get more British protests. You’ll get people inundating their MPs with letters and emails, you’ll get protests, I hope peaceful, outside people’s surgeries.
“You’ll basically get the British people saying ‘Up with this we will not put’. And I think in that climate it’ll be more and more difficult for ultra-Remain MPs to push forward this agenda, with Laura Kuennsberg explaining to the British people night after night what’s really going on.”
ConHome: “You said a number of MPs are in trouble with their constituency associations. What’s your own view about deselection?”
Francois: “Well for obvious reasons Members of Parliament as a breed don’t like to talk about deselection. The relationship between an MP and their association is a matter for those people.
“But every Tory was elected – I think with one or two exceptions, in fairness, Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry did qualify I think their election addresses…”
ConHome: “Grieve did point out that Tory MPs had absolutely no say in the manifesto.”
Francois: “The overwhelming bulk of Tory MPs were elected on a manifesto to honour Brexit. And if they then do exactly the opposite, I think they’ve got to explain to their local troops why they’re doing that.”
ConHome: “So you think you’re going to win?”
Francois: “At the end of the day…”
ConHome: “It could all go catastrophically wrong. The Establishment – the Establishment in your terms – could win.”
Francois: “Well the Establishment were going to win the referendum, weren’t they, and they didn’t.
“I trust at the end of the day the canny intuition of the British people. I don’t believe that at the end of the day, they will allow politicians to do them out of their decision to leave.
“And that is my sheet anchor.
“And we have civil servants like Ollie Robbins who are very pro-EU, who have never wanted us to leave, and have done everything in their power, including colluding with the European Union, to try and keep us in.
“That’s why they helped to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement that effectively does that.
“Now at the end of all this, in my personal opinion, this is not necessarily the opinion of the ERG, Mr Robbins should go to the Tower, in which case he should arrive by river. Is that pugnacious enough for you?”
ConHome [pointing to a picture of an aeroplane over the fireplace in Francois’ office]: “Are those the Dambusters?”
Francois: “That’s a picture called Hopgood’s Courageous Run. He was the second Lancaster in and they were badly shot-up even when they began their attack run, but they pressed home the attack. Hopgood was Gibson’s best friend.
“The other thing I might mention is I was given the job by David Cameron when I was Shadow Europe Minister of leading us out of the EPP.
“We did it. That was two years of my life, and quite a bit of travel, finding new allies. The EPP tried very hard to stop us.
“But coming back to Lisbon, I think it was the way Lisbon was handled by the then Labour Government, and the fact that we didn’t have a referendum, which began to set the conditions…”
ConHome: “Almost everyone can see in retrospect that it would have been a much better issue, I mean from the point of view of the Remainers, to have a referendum on.”
Francois: “One of the reasons why we ended up in a situation where people voted to leave was because they had seen one treaty after another effectively imposed upon us without their consent.
“And Europe was something that was being done to us rather than done with us. And all those people who thought they were being frightfully clever getting away without a referendum, in the end they got their comeuppance, because within eight years of that being ratified, we voted to leave the EU.”
ConHome: “Jolly difficult job for Theresa May, keeping the Tory Party together. People like Matthew Parris want the party to split.”
Francois: “I don’t by any means always agree with Ken Clarke, and he called me a gilet jaune in the Chamber last week.”
ConHome: “He told you to go out and join the protesters.”
Francois: “Yes. But Ken has been utterly consistent for 40 years about his views on Europe.”
ConHome: “And would have become leader if he’d been prepared to temporise.”
Francois: “He utterly refused to compromise when he stood for the leadership, even though it might have been to his advantage to do so. At the other end of the spectrum, Bill Cash has been equally utterly consistent for just about as long.
“And yet these two men, for the best part of four decades, have managed to remain in the same political party. So if they can do it, the rest of us can do it.
“And at some point, when all of this is over, the party has to heal. And actually, I think the Whips’ Office are very conscious of that. I think a lot of us in the ERG are very conscious of that.
“And somehow, when we’ve resolved this issue, and when we’ve left and honoured the instruction the British people gave us, we then need to heal.
“And that’s partly why, after we had the No Confidence vote, I delivered a small case of fairly decent Margaux to the Whips’ Office, and put it on the Deputy Chief Whip’s desk with a little note that said ‘To the Office, with the compliments of Dad’s Army’.”
ConHome: “Has this been published?”
Francois: “I don’t think it has. I got some very nice texts back, and I’m told they’re saving it for some special occasion. Now what that will be I don’t know. That’s a decision for the Chief.
“But I just thought as a gesture, it’s trying to acknowledge that ultimately we’re all in the same party, and while we might have very strong and principled differences on this one issue, if you cut us all down the middle, you find that none of us wants a Marxist anti-Semite running the Government of this country.
“And Ken and Bill would both agree with that. So there is hope yet.”