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.

Profile: Steve Baker, Christian Conservative, ERG organiser, small stater – and thorn in Johnson’s side

22 Dec

“The more Steve Baker is in the papers, the worse the Conservative Party is doing,” a senior Tory remarked this week.

Baker is in the papers quite a bit. Sam Coates of Sky News reported a few days ago that Baker had sacked Nadine Dorries from the “Clean Global Brexit” WhatsApp group of Tory MPs, after she had the temerity to defend Boris Johnson as “the hero who delivered Brexit”.

“Enough is enough,” Baker declared on removing her, and posted a thumbs-up emoji of himself, before suggesting that the Conservatives’ victory at the last general election was by no means entirely thanks to Johnson:

“Someone (ahem) but not him persuaded Farage not to run against incumbents.”

George Parker of The Financial Times cites another striking comment by Baker, made during last week’s rebellion by 99 Conservative backbenchers:

“There is now a party within a party,” winced one Tory official after the Commons vote. Steve Baker, a former minister, quoted Romans to fellow rebels in a WhatsApp message, urging them to show magnanimity as they inflicted humiliation on the prime minister: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Baker’s Christian faith is more important to him than his politics, though for most purposes the two are indistinguishable. He was baptised in the sea off his native Cornwall as a teenager, and told Sebastian Whale, who wrote a long piece about him for PoliticsHome at the start of 2020:

“‘It is absolutely fundamental to who I am that I am a Christian. I don’t think of myself as a religious person, I just am a Christian.’… When asked if there is space for religion and politics to co-exist, Baker replies: ‘What happens I’m afraid with my Christian brothers and sisters, as so often in politics, is they allow themselves to be shown the landmine and then they jump on the landmine with both feet.’ His political mantra is: ‘Do not give into evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it.'”

His determination to combine confrontation of evil with practical politics is seen in his role as the principal organiser of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Conservatives.

“He is one of the most organised and effective people you could work with,” a senior ERG person told ConHome. “He understands technology – he knows how to make systems work.”

But Baker is no dry-as-dust technocrat, Two days before the third Meaningful Vote, held on 29th March 2019, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, told Conservative MPs at a meeting of the 1922 Committee that if they voted for the Withdrawal Agreement, she would in due course stand down as Prime Minister and as their leader.

The pressure on members of the ERG to support the deal was intense, with other Conservatives shouting at them to do so. But immediately afterwards, the ERG held a meeting of its own, which was addressed by Baker, who said:

“I am consumed by a ferocious rage…after that pantomime of sycophancy and bullying next door.

“It is a rage I have not felt since the time of the Lisbon Treaty, when I realised that those who govern us care not how we vote.

“For what did our forebears fight and die? It was for our liberty. And what is our liberty, if not our right to govern ourselves, peacefully at the ballot box?

“Like all of you, I have wrestled with my conscience, with the evidence before me, with the text of the Treaty, and I resolved that I would vote against this deal however often it was presented, come what may, if it meant the fall of the Government and the destruction of the Conservative Party.

“By God, right now, if I think of the worthless, ignorant cowards and knaves in the House today, voting for things they do not understand, which would surrender our right to govern ourselves, I would tear this building down and bulldoze the rubble into the river. God help me, I would.”

The speech is printed in Spartan Victory, by Mark Francois, which will be reviewed on ConHome in January. And one can perhaps see from it why someone like Andrew Mitchell, in whose recent book, reviewed here in October, Baker is not mentioned once, nevertheless told ConHome:

“Steve Baker is as straight as a die. He is unusual in politics in that he says what he thinks and means what he says. His instincts on liberty and the rights of the citizen are thoroughly admirable.”

But some Tories do find Baker, with his willingness to contemplate the fall of the Government, destruction of the Conservative Party and demolition of Parliament, a bit much to take.

In his Diaries, reviewed here in May, Sir Alan Duncan, admittedly a man ready to be annoyed, variously describes Baker as “the most useless minister”, “the little wanker”, “the vacuous little upstart”, “the turd” and “the nutjob” who “should be taken away by the men in white coats and certified as clinically insane”.

One cannot help feeling astonished that Conservative Party has remained, roughly speaking, intact.

Baker was born in Cornwall in 1971. His father was a carpenter and his mother an accounting clerk. He was educated at Poltair School in St Austell, studied Aerospace Engineering at Southampton University, and served in the RAF until 1999, after which he took an MSc in Computation at St Cross College, Oxford and held a variety of senior positions as a software engineer and consultant. His wife, Beth, served as a senior officer in the RAF medical branch until 2010.

His enthusiasms include skydiving, motorcycling, and Austrian economics, about which he discoursed with evangelical fervour when interviewed by ConHome in 2014.

The economics, and his conviction that a small state is better for the poor, came before the politics. Daniel Hannan has said of him:

“He is one of the few people who I have seen physically flinch at the thought of the Government spending more money. Really, his issue was not initially the EU except insofar as he was generally sceptical of big government and saw the EU as part of that. The Euroscepticism developed out of that.”

Wycombe was the first seat Baker put in for, and with his innocent boyish sincerity, and a twinkle in his eye, he carried all before him, and defeated Kwasi Kwarteng in the final of the selection process.

He was elected in 2010 with a majority of 9,560, which shrank in 2019 to 4,214. In Parliament, he has distinguished himself as an organiser of rebellions.

After the 2017 general election, Theresa May made him a junior minister in the Brexit department, but after she had tried to sell her version of Brexit to the Cabinet at Chequers in the summer of 2018, and his departmental minister, David Davis, had resigned, Baker too resigned, and resumed the life of a rebel organiser, for which, perhaps, he is better suited.

And yet most insurgents dream of taking over one day. That, along with the moral unacceptability of the present regime, is why they rebelled in the first place.

One may surmise that Baker is not spared such visions. He sees with brilliant clarity how he would reform the banking system, so at last it accords with the principles set down by Cobden and von Mises.

Baker is only 50. He is said to want, like most of his colleagues, to succeed Boris Johnson as leader. In August of this year, he got 4.69 per cent in the first ConHome Next Tory Leader survey for two years. He can build on that.

Charlotte Gill’s Podcasts Review 6) Christopher Hope with Mark Francois, Ailbhe Rea and Stephen Bush with Mark Harper

8 Dec

Every fortnight, ConservativeHome will compile a handful of podcast recommendations – content that has been published in the weeks preceding – for its readers. Although these will mainly focus on podcasts for conservative listeners, we will try to include other options – should they be particularly interesting. Sometimes this feature will contain other types of media.

Title: Chopper’s Politics
Host: Christopher Hope
Episode: Pricey PCR tests and ‘Remainer Publishers’

Duration: 40:09 minutes
Published: December 2

What’s it about?

There’s a lot crammed into this 40-minute episode of Chopper’s Politics, starting with the appearance of Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, who talks to Hope about all things Covid travel-related. But the part of the podcast that has attracted the most media attention is its host’s chat with Mark Francois, the ERG Chair, about his latest book Spartan Victory. Francois delves into the process of writing the book, and how it went down with “Remainer” publishers, as well as offering his latest views on Brexit.

Some teaser quotes:

Shapps:

  • (On the Omicron variant): “I don’t think it’s going right the way back to the bad old days”.
  • (On Labour’s description of HS2): ‘I have never heard £96 billion pounds of expenditure described as ‘crumbs’ before”.

Francois:

  • (On the triggering of Article 16): “I don’t think this can wait forever. If you keep threatening to do it, and you don’t do it, after a while you look weak.”
  • “I did approach – over the last year – quite a number of publishing houses… with the aid of a literary agent. In a nutshell the problem was that the orthodoxy within the publishing industry is very, very much Remain.”
Verdict

A fun interview that covers a huge amount of political territory.

Title: The New Statesman Podcast
Host: Ailbhe Rea and Stephen Bush
Episode: How a chief whip became a rebel, with Mark Harper MP

Duration: 27:33 minutes
Published: December 7

What’s it about?

In this discussion, Mark Harper, Head of the Covid Recovery Group, talks to The New Statesman about a number of issues, ranging from his time as chief whip under David Cameron, to his thoughts on the Labour Party and whether it’s been a useful Opposition during the Coronavirus crisis, to why he’s become a “rebel” after years of supporting the Government.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “The thing I’ve mostly rebelled on has been on Covid, and it’s partly been about the policy, but it’s also been about how you treat Parliament”.
  • On Labour’s Covid response: “They’ve basically given the Government a blank cheque; they’ve agreed things before they’ve even seen them, and someone had to do that scrutiny work”.
  • “On most things, I am very supportive of the Government. It’s just there are one or two things where I’m not, and I’m very clear about that. I haven’t suddenly become a rebel on everything.”
Verdict

A brief, but all-encompassing, insight into Harper’s politics and what’s made him a Covid rebel.

Duration: 24:31 minutes
Published: December 7

Title: UnHerd
Host: Freddie Sayers
Episode: Inside Australia’s Covid internment camp

Duration: 20:14 minutes
Published: December 2

What’s it about?

Get ready to have your jaw drop watching this video. During the course, Hayley Hodgson, a former retail assistant, talks to Freddie Sayers of UnHerd about her horrendous time stuck in one of Australia’s Covid internment camps, “Howard Springs”. The conditions Hodgson was subjected to, when she didn’t even have Covid, are dystopian to put it mildly.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “They said ‘no, you’re getting taken away. And you have no choice. You’re going to Howard Springs. You either come with us now, and we’ll put you in the back of the divvy van. Or you can have a choice to get a COVID cab’.”
  • “Obviously, I was very distressed. I was crying. I was saying ‘this isn’t fair’, it was just horrible to go through.”
  • “I said ‘once these go negative, am I allowed to leave?’ And she said ‘no, you’re here for the 14 days’.”
Verdict:

A wake-up call as to how dangerous Covid policies can become.

The 29 Conservative MPs who supported the China genocide amendment

23 Mar
  • Adam Afriyie
  • David Amess
  • Bob Blackman
  • Crispin Blunt
  • Peter Bone

 

  • Andrew Bridgen
  • Reman Chishti
  • Christopher Chope
  • David Davis
  • Richard Drax

 

  • Ian Duncan Smith
  • Mark Francois
  • Nusrat Ghani
  • Sally-Ann Hart
  • Philip Hollobone

 

  • Jeremy Hunt
  • Bernard Jenkin
  • Andrew Lewer
  • Julian Lewis
  • Tim Loughton

 

  • Craig Mackinlay
  • Kieran Mullan
  • Caroline Nokes
  • Matthew Offord
  • Andrew Rossindell

 

  • Bob Seely
  • Derek Thomas
  • Charles Walker
  • David Warburton

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson the statesman is working for open borders by sea and land

3 Feb

“Be the Unionist we need you to be,” Ian Paisley (DUP, Antrim North) exhorted the Prime Minister via video link.

Paisley lamented that “the Protocol has betrayed us and made us feel like foreigners in our own country”.

He added that “tea and sympathy will not cut the mustard” and asked the Prime Minister: “Will he be a man of his word?”

Boris Johnson has in the past assured anyone who expressed worry about a border down the Irish Sea that there would be no such border.

Today he declared: “We will do everything we need to do to ensure there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.”

He had earlier remarked, in response to a question from Claire Hanna (SDLP, Belfast South), “it was most regrettable that the EU should seem to cast doubt on the Good Friday Agreement, the principles of the peace process, by seeming to call for a border across the island of Ireland”.

In response to a question from Stephen Farry (Alliance, North Down) Johnson took the chance to reiterate that the EU’s behaviour was “most unfortunate”.

But for Johnson, the EU’s behaviour was far from unfortunate. He can now be the statesman who offers to work with everyone of goodwill to get rid of these wretched borders.

It is in this sense that his earlier statements on the subject are to be understood: he was expressing an admirable aspiration, not an accomplished fact; promising he would sort out the Irish Sea problem, not that he had already sorted it out.

How he enjoys being the constructive, enlightened statesman, who deprecates the recklessness of the European Commission.

But he also enjoys riling Sir Keir Starmer, to whom he attributed various statements which had the Labour leader protesting: “Complete nonsense. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a pre-prepared gag.”

“May I advise him to consult YouTube,” Johnson replied in his most statesmanlike manner.

Johnson took the chance to accuse Sir Keir of having wanted Britain to stay in the European Medicines Agency, to which the Labour leader angrily replied: “The Prime Minister knows I’ve never said that, from this Despatch Box or anywhere else, but the truth escapes him.”

Mark Francois (Con, Rayleigh and Wickford) rose on a point of order immediately after PMQs to point out that on 21st January 2017 Sir Keir had asked in the Commons why we would ever want to leave the European Medicines Agency.

An ambush, and a successful one. Supporters of the British nation suddenly have the upper hand, while those who supported the EU sound out of date; loyal to an ancien régime which cannot be revived; able only, once the lockdown comes to an end, to hold secret dinner parties in north London at which they raise a glass to the Queen over the water, Ursula von der Leyen.

Profile: Ben Wallace, one of Johnson’s Long Marchers, and a traditional but also irreverent Defence Secretary

26 Jan

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, is not just another cautious career politician who has risen by taking immense pains never to say or do anything interesting.

He might, it is true, be mistaken at first glance for that type. He is capable, when he puts his mind to it, of being as dull as any of his Cabinet colleagues.

The last two Defence Secretaries, Penny Mordaunt (May to July 2019) and Gavin Williamson (November 2017 to May 2019), often courted publicity.

Wallace, on the whole, does not. He might pass, in his Brigade tie, for a quiet clubman, looking somewhat older than his 50 years, a bit of an anachronism and most likely a bore.

His friends insist this is quite wrong: “He’s great company. A good mimic. He sends people up. He sends deeply inappropriate memes on WhatsApp. I could tell you about the time he was serving in Northern Ireland…”

But in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this exploit is like “the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared”.

Wallace’s irreverence is perhaps one of the things that in 2014 led him to conclude, and tell his fellow Lancashire MP Jake Berry, that when there was a vacancy, Boris Johnson should become the next leader of the Conservative Party.

This was not, at the time, a fashionable opinion. Johnson was not even in Parliament, many Conservative MPs distrusted him, and the party machine was firmly in the hands of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Wallace and Berry are Long Marchers, who seemed to have nothing much to hope for under Cameron, and supported Johnson well before victory seemed within the latter’s grasp.

Berry told ConHome:

“Both of us understood as northern MPs what it takes to win the North as Conservatives. We always believed Boris Johnson was the person who could win in the North – who could get under the skin of northern voters in the way that David Cameron couldn’t.”

Irreverence can be a valuable quality, for one way Johnson reaches northern voters is by refusing to take pious London commentators as seriously as those commentators take themselves.

Wallace told Berry he would go and see Johnson, let him know of their support, and offer to help him to find a seat in London for the 2015 general election.

They also began, with others including Nigel Adams and Amanda Milling, to hold curry evenings at Johnson’s house in Islington so he could meet and get to know Conservative MPs.

Johnson came back into the Commons in 2015 as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and took time to find his feet. Early the following year, when the EU Referendum campaign was about to start and Johnson was wavering between Leave and Remain, Wallace urged him in emphatic terms to back Remain, and told him that siding with Leave would mean being allied with such “clowns” as Nigel Farage, and would lead to the loss of 30 parliamentary votes in any future leadership campaign.

Loyalty in Wallace’s book means telling your leader, in private, when you think he is being a damn fool. Johnson rejected the advice, led Leave to an unexpected victory, and became, after Cameron’s breakfast-time resignation, front-runner to be the next Prime Minister.

The referendum victors were exhausted, which is one reason why they were not thinking straight. Michael Gove told Johnson he would support him for the leadership, and Johnson allowed his campaign, run by Wallace and by Lynton Crosby, to be more or less taken over by the Gove team.

A week after the referendum, on the morning of Thursday 30th June 2016, Gove unexpectedly announced that he was running himself for the leadership, whereupon Johnson threw in his hand.

Wallace proceeded, a few days later, to write a piece for The Daily Telegraph, in which he remarked:

“Just like the operational tours I used to deploy on in the Army, you learn a lot during the contest. You learn who to trust, you learn who is honourable and you learn who your friends are. Ultimately what matters in a campaign is not who you vote for, but how you conduct yourself – because we need a functioning party after the event.”

He offered this account of recent developments:

“When on Thursday morning, just before 9am, I got a call from a journalist asking me if it was true Michael Gove was deserting Boris, I denied it. It couldn’t have been true. Only the night before we had confirmed 97 names of supporters, and I knew of three more coming over that day. Michael hadn’t said anything or hinted at any frustrations over the previous four days so I presumed it was just another story from the ‘rumour mill’ that accompanies leadership campaigns.

“I walked round the corner to see Lynton Crosby, ashen white, taking a call from someone who turned out to be Michael Gove. ‘He has done the dirty on us, mate,’ were the words I remember most afterwards.”

In Wallace’s view, this made Gove – married to Sarah Vine, a columnist for The Daily Mail – unfit for Number Ten:

“One of the most privileged parts of my job as a Northern Ireland minister is to work alongside members of MI5 and the police. They work, every day, anonymously, to keep us safe. In their world loose talk costs lives. It does in a prime minister’s world too. UK citizens deserve to know that when they go to sleep at night their secrets and their nation’s secrets aren’t shared in the newspaper column of the prime minister’s wife the next day, or traded away with newspaper proprietors over fine wine.

“I always told Boris we needed to show that we had support from across the political spectrum. Vote Boris was not to be a takeover by Vote Leave, nor was it to be about an inner circle. But Michael thought otherwise.

“He already had Dominic Cummings (his former special adviser, who has the same effect on MPs as arsenic) making plans for who and how to run No 10.

“Whoever leads the Conservative Party needs to be trustworthy. We have a divided country and a divided parliamentary party. An untrustworthy ‘Brexiteer’ is no different from an untrustworthy ‘Remainer’. Governing is a serious business. It is not a game, nor is it a role play of House of Cards.

“Boris is many things, but nasty he is not. I remember when he made his decision to back Brexit I pleaded with him not to. I said it would lose him the leadership. But he said ‘sovereignty mattered more than anything’. At the time David Cameron was negotiating hard in Brussels. Boris agreed it would be dishonourable to pull the rug from under the PM as he sat at dinner with EU leaders trying to get the best for the UK. So he waited till he was back. Gove didn’t. That says it all.”

After the article appeared, Crosby sent Wallace a message: “Mate, you don’t miss.”

The piece is not one that anyone who read PPE at Oxford would be likely to have written. It indicates a different scale of values; a different idea of loyalty.

Wallace is unusual among modern Cabinet ministers, for he did not go to university. On leaving Millfield School, he spent a short time as a ski instructor at the Austrian National Ski School in Alpbach, before proceeding to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

At school, “a very old colonel, a Scotsman, who had been in the Royal Scots Greys” suggested to him and others that they join the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

But at Sandhurst, “all the college adjutants, nearly all the colour sergeants, and all the company sergeant majors were Guardsmen”, and Wallace decided instead to join the Scots Guards, with whom he served from 1991-98, being mentioned in dispatches in 1992 for leading a patrol which captured an IRA active service unit.

He was on duty the night the Princess of Wales died, and was the Guardsman sent over to retrieve her body.

On leaving the Scots Guards with the rank of captain, Wallace entered Conservative politics, and was elected in 1999 as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, where he served a single term.

He has described, somewhat indiscreetly, how the Queen might have played a part in his selection as a candidate. Scotland on Sunday nicknamed him Captain Fantastic, and convivial Scottish journalists claim in jest to have invented him.

In 2003, he moved to Lancashire, was returned in 2005 as the MP for Lancaster and Wyre, and since 2010 has sat for Wyre and Preston North.

This does not mean he has left his regiment behind. His Senior Parliamentary Assistant in the constituency is Alf Clempson, a former Warrant Officer in the Scots Guards, Wallace’s Platoon Sergeant in F Company, applying “the same Sergeants’ Mess and Household Division discipline to his job” now as he did then, while serving also as a Lancashire County Councillor.

In 2005, at the start of his maiden speech in the Commons, Wallace emitted another flash of feeling which would not probably have occurred to a PPE graduate:

“Yesterday, while I was waiting all day to be called, it struck me that a maiden speech is a bit like a first bungee jump, leap from an aeroplane or chance to walk a girl home—while one is waiting, one does not know whether one will get one’s chance; while one is waiting for the chance, one is not sure whether one has done the right thing.”

From 2010-14 Wallace served a convivial apprenticeship as PPS to Ken Clarke, followed by a year in the Whips’ Office and a year as a junior Northern Ireland minister.

In 2016 Theresa May, who had raised Johnson to the Foreign Office, sent Wallace to be Security Minister in the Home Office, where he spent three onerous years preserving a perfect discretion about the horrible matters with which he had to deal.

In the summer of 2019, Johnson’s second leadership campaign was flooded with ambitious MPs rushing to join the winning side, but Wallace the Long Marcher, though this time rather more backward in coming forward, was rewarded with the post of Defence Secretary.

In February 2020, when the Cabinet was reshuffled, “everyone was adamant,” an insider relates, “that Wallace should be sacked, but Johnson hunched his shoulders and insisted on keeping him.”

In an interview last October with ConservativeHome, Wallace expressed pride in the swift response of the armed forces when called on by the civil power to help deal with the pandemic.

The Defence Secretary demonstrated his ability to be not especially interesting when he chooses, but grew more animated at the end of the interview as he explained that he had criticised Labour for waging “unlawful wars” because those who served in those conflicts had found themselves exposed, long afterwards, to vexatious and unreasonable charges, for which the Government which had sent them to war without taking proper precautions against such proceedings must bear the ultimate responsibility.

Wallace does not bring to his post a capacity for airy theorising. He is a pragmatist, who in his speeches draws lessons from his own experience as a junior officer, which senior officers do not always regard as strictly relevant.

Mark Francois, a member of the Defence Select Committee, reckons Wallace is doing a good job. He says he brings continuity to a role which has had six occupants since 2010; has the ear of the Prime Minister; has the moral courage to give Johnson unwelcome advice (for example to keep the promise to protect Northern Ireland veterans against vexatious claims); and has recently obtained an excellent financial settlement from the Treasury.

Francois added that Wallace will have to make sure the extra money is not frittered away, as can so easily happen when long-term procurement programmes are based on absurdly optimistic assumptions.

Johnson is said to have promised to keep Wallace at the Ministry of Defence, charged with ensuring the money is properly spent, though both of them also hope that by spending considerable amounts of it in Scotland, the Union will be strengthened, and Johnson has high hopes for the future of British shipbuilding.

Conservative Party members think highly of Wallace, who is currently fourth in this site’s Cabinet league table.

Wallace has remarked that the Officer’ Messes of his youth were a mixture of “thrusters, characters, dreamers, and drifters…and in time of war you never know which is the one that pulls you out of trouble and is the great leader”.

In politics, as in war, one can never be sure who is going to come good, and who will turn out to be a dead loss. But Johnson is in some ways a more traditional, and pragmatic, Prime Minister than his critics are willing to recognise.

And in Wallace, he has appointed a traditional, and pragmatic, Defence Secretary, with “strange though quite well hidden qualities of empathy”, as one observer puts it, and deep feelings which only bubble to the surface at rare intervals.

The 33 Conservative MPs who rebelled over the Genocide Amendment

19 Jan
  • Ahmad Khan, Imran
  • Amess, David
  • Blackman, Bob
  • Blunt, Crispin
  • Bridgen, Andrew

 

  • Crouch, Tracey
  • Davis, David
  • Djanogly, Jonathan
  • Duncan Smith, Iain
  • Ellwood, Tobias

 

  • Francois, Mark
  • Ghani, Nusrat
  • Gillan, Cheryl
  • Gray, James
  • Green, Damian

 

  • Hart, Sally-Anne (pictured)
  • Hoare, Simon
  • Hollobone, Philip
  • Jenkin, Bernard
  • Latham, Pauline

 

  • Lewer, Andrew
  • Lewis, Julian
  • Loughton, Tim
  • Mackinlay, Craig
  • Nokes, Caroline

 

  • Richards, Nicola
  • Rossindell, Andrew
  • Seely, Bob
  • Tugendhat, Tom
  • Wakeford, Christian

 

  • Walker, Charles
  • Warburton, David
  • Wragg, William

Today’s genocide amendment had no relation whatsoever to recent votes on Covid – or other major rebellions that this site has been chronicling.

But there is considerable overlap between the rebels on those lists and on this one.  And even newcomers to our records such as Sally-Ann Hart and Nicola Richards have voted against the Government previously (though rarely).

Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the amendment, lists of those defying the whips now have a certain predictability.

Tory MPs, Downing Street and the Treasury are ready to clash over plans to cut the army to 60,000. Who will win out?

21 Jul

In Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s White Flag, their books about Britain’s defence capability, there is a chapter on “Operation Tethered Goat”, which looks at the army’s presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.

Part of it describes the 800-strong NATO UK-led Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), as it is called, stationed in an encampment “at the end of a dusty road an hour’s drive from the Estonian capital of Tallinn”.  The authors go on to identify how it was originally intended to be provided with 18 Challenger tanks.  It got ten.

The RAND corporation reported that however they war-gamed a Russian invasion involving conventional armed forces, these reached Tallinn and Riga within 60 hours.  “This is why some in the armed forces privately call the EFP in Estonia ‘Operation Tethered Goat’ “, write Oakeshott and our proprietor.

If Downing Street puts its plans for defence spending into effect, expect the prospects of what the authors refer to as “a small but fierce battalion of UK troops”, from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, to be fiercely debated, along with those of an entire division of the British Army – and our defence strategy as a whole.

The background is well known.  Dominic Cummings has long had an interest in revisiting defence spending.  “He believes that the British state is wasteful; that the most wasteful part of the British state is the Ministry of Defence, and that the most wasteful part of the Ministry of Defence is its procurement function”, as one Tory MP puts it.

Not that this well-placed participant in defence debates believes that Cummings is necessarily wrong.  He has read Boris Johnson’s adviser’s profuse and splenetic blogs on defence, which also cover the Pentagon’s use of artificial intelligence, the history of modern weapons development, drone swarms, equipment safety and (topically) China.

A section on Government procurement is sub-headed, Apolalypse Now-style, “the horror, the horror”.  This would also be a fair description of the reaction when it was reported that Cummings has been given permission “to tour some of Britain’s most highly classified national security sites as part of his plan to radically shake up the military”.

There will be much more to his scheme, and to the defence, security and foreign policy review, than the future of Ministry of Defence procurement – or even of the army.  It must weigh the future of the navy, internal security, cyber and the air force, not to mention the security threats posed by China, radical Islam and Russia, plus others.

But the prospects for the EFP in Estonia, and indeed those of the Third (United Kingdom) Division are at stake.  It is, the Army declares, “the only division at continual operational readiness in the UK” – in other words, the only one of three prepared for action in Eastern Europe.

The word on the defence street is that Downing Street has a proposal to cut the army to 60,000 – not the first time that this figure has been deployed.  How can it possibly make sense?  “It depends what your objective is,” one backbench source told ConservativeHome.

“If your defence effort is concentrated against Islamist terror in Britain, you don’t need nearly that many.  If you want to fight in Estonia, it isn’t enough – you need as many as you can get.  For the Middle East, you’d want something in between”.

The review itself is already the subject of swirling internal spats and, as noted above, this isn’t the first time that a cut to 60,000 has been mooted.  Or that army numbers themselves have been reduced.  On paper, its “establishment strength” has come down to 82,500.  In practice, that means a real capacity of about 74,000 regulars.

“It’s been 15 per cent or so beneath strength for years,” another defence-minded MP said.  “The generals get their budget, complain about the army being downsized – and pocket savings for kit”.  So it has been since the Levene Review years, he said.  “We haven’t done badly on reserves; the real hole is in the regulars.”

The army has already reorganised itself in the wake of recent defence and security reviews – see the emergence of “Strike” – and optimists argue that more kit all round can substitute for boots on the ground.  That Apache attack helicopters, for example, can assail more tanks at once – or that robots will eventually replace men almost entirely.

Conservative MPs are unlikely to be among them.  Forty-five members of Parliament have served in the armed forces as regulars or reservists.  No fewer than 41 of them are Tories, most of whom are ex-army.  Off the top of our heads, we name two senior Select Committee chairs by way of example: Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood.

Boris Johnson cannot simply impose a cut to 60,000 on Parliament.  For a start, there is Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, to consider, if he survives any coming reshuffle.  Then there is the legislature itself.  There are questions, debates, bills that could be creatively amended – not to mention the defence estimates.

Today, Mark Francois will release the second part of his report into army recruitment (he wrote about the first part on this site three years ago) – a reminder that interest in the armed forces on the Tory benches blooms perenially.  There are three possible outcomes to the future of the army when the reviews make their recommendations.

The first is the most likely: namely that, in the manner of previous defence reviews, there is a decision to muddle through.  Cummings and others get the cyber investment they want; the army’s headline number settles down at roughly the real figure it is now.  No-one is exactly happy but no-one is very unhappy either.

The second is that the army is reduced to 60,000 people.  This is almost certain not to happen – because Conservative MPs would kill it.  If a band of perhaps 20 can force Minister to turn tail on Huawei, 40 or so can easily do so on such cuts to the army.

The third that Cummings and company get their cyber; that the army stays at 80,000; that the other services are also shielded from economies.  Given Boris Johnson’s inclination to spend spend spend as well as build build build, one would have thought this a runner.

Except that Rishi Sunak is already keeping the economy afloat on a tide of borrowed money, and this site is told that he and the Treasury team are getting very restive.  They will be well aware of the Ministry of Defence’s unreformed history over procurement.

It looks from here as though a political pile-up is coming, and it’s impossible to say who will emerged from it least damaged.  Meanwhile, in Estonia, our soldiers watch and wait for the Russian conventional assault that will, God willing, not come. Cummings and the strategic review, by contrast, are knocking at the door.