ON Tuesday Kathy Gyngell went to the House of Commons (just before Mrs May put forward her latest ten-point WA package) to meet the Tories’ most trenchant and diehard MP, Mark Francois, the member for Rayleigh and Wickford. She cross-examined him on Mrs May, Brexit, the ERG, the party he loves and the demonising of its ‘Right’ wing. We publish the first part today and the second tomorrow.
KATHY GYNGELL: I notice, reading upside down, that you’ve got the book Appeasing Hitler on your desk. I assume you think Mrs May has been appeasing the EU, and is now appeasing the Labour Party with the same aim in mind, of delivering Brexit?
MARK FRANCOIS: Hang on, for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t want, in any way, to compare the Prime Minister to Adolf Hitler, which is totally different. Now, the only reason I’ve got that book on my desk is because I took Jacob to dinner at the Carlton Club recently, and in return, being such a gent, he sent me a copy of this book to say thank you for dinner. And Tim Bouverie who wrote the book is an old friend of Jacob’s.
KG: So are there any lessons to be learnt from it, albeit that you wouldn’t ever compare, rightly so, Mrs May to Adolf Hitler?
MF: Well, no I wouldn’t. But where I do criticise the Prime Minister is for negotiating with a Marxist. That’s one of the reasons we’re in the mess that we’re in. Jeremy Corbyn represents the opposite of everything we in the Conservative Party believe in. He is a republican. He doesn’t believe in the monarchy, although he tries to hide it, but you know from his back-story he is a republican. He is anti-Semite. He has presided over a Labour Party in which anti-Semitism has unfortunately become institutionalised, certainly in its upper ranks. He is a Marxist, in terms of his economics. And we have been reduced to trying to negotiate with this man – effectively our sworn enemy – in order to try to get the Prime Minister’s deal through the House of Commons, because it’s so fundamentally unpopular, and has been overwhelmingly rejected three times. You know, many members of the party think this is appalling.
KG: Much as we know what Jeremy Corbyn is, and it’s not very happy, say he was just a straight Remainer, and was demanding all the same things in order to do a deal with Mrs May, would you still be equally critical?
MF: Well, I’m particularly critical because he is who he is. And I think in terms of our party members, it is absolute anathema. He is opposed to everything we believe in . . .
KG: But there’s still a principle about our membership or not membership of the EU and getting out of the EU . . .
MF: Well . . .
KG: . . . cleanly. So my point is: Mrs May has adopted a strategy with the EU, that she always says it’s to get a deal, but is always a capitulation. She’s doing exactly the same with the largely Remainer Labour Party and the rest of a Remainer Parliament. That seems to me, perhaps, of more fundamental significance than just the principle that Jeremy Corbyn is a bad man and represents everything you dislike.
MF: Let’s talk about the deal itself. At the heart of the deal is the so-called Withdrawal Agreement. I say ‘so-called’ because it doesn’t actually lead us to withdrawal at all, it’s completely misnamed, but deliberately so. It is a draft 585-page international treaty. And I’ve got it here. This is my very well-thumbed copy. Which you can witness, right?
MF: And I learnt about EU treaties when I was the party’s Europe spokesman under William Hague and I did the Lisbon Treaty for us in 2008. That was a mere bagatelle of 300 pages. This is 585. If we assent to this and ratify it by an Act of Parliament, because that’s what we would need to do, because it’s a treaty, we are bound for ever in international law. It’s a bit like signing the UN Charter. So, when you look at this, it does not take us out of the European Union, it leaves us half in and half out. We’d be in a customs union, once we enter it we can never leave unless the EU consents. There’s an arbitration procedure, which is ultimately overseen by the European Court of Justice. We don’t leave under this agreement. That’s why I and many of my colleagues in the ERG have always been utterly opposed to this on a fierce point of principle, because it is completely at variance with the decision of the British people in the referendum.
KG: So we’re at round four, and it’s now a Withdrawal Bill. I assume neither you nor any of your ERG colleagues are contemplating voting for this Withdrawal Bill?
MF: Well, there were in Meaningful Vote Three, on 29 January, the ERG split. Some of us, there were 28 of us, nicknamed the Spartans by Paul Goodman at Conservative Home, who refused to vote for it under any circumstances. Other members voted for it. The reason, there was an honourable disagreement of view. We all wanted to leave the European Union passionately . . . but some people thought it was better to try and leave on 29 March and then to sort out all the legalities afterwards. I mean, I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it. Some of us said, ‘No, no, once you’ve signed it you’ll never get out of it and you’re bound for ever, although, of course, we want to leave, we’re bursting to leave too.’ So, the ERG divided on that basis. But we didn’t leave on 12 April. So, in a sense, the rationale for doing that has now passed on. So what you are now finding is that almost the entire ERG is back together again on this same page. And almost the entire ERG will oppose the WA bill at Second Reading from IDS and Jacob downwards.
KG: Until now the ERG has seemed a spent force. It’s seemed as though it’s failed in everything it’s tried to do, to be . . .
MF: I completely disagree with that. The ERG was established after the Maastricht Treaty debates by the great Sir Michael Spicer, who was our founder, who wanted to establish a group that would mean that in the Conservative Party, within the Parliamentary party, there were always a group of people who understood in detail European law and the effect of the EU on British life. I joined it in 2002; our first researcher was Dan Hannan. And that group has evolved down the years and it’s become something much more than just a group that produces worthy but rather dry papers. And it’s now a force to be reckoned with, as we all know. So . . . and if it hadn’t been for the ERG, we would probably already have signed up to the Withdrawal Agreement and therefore never left the European Union.
KG: But you still haven’t got rid of Mrs May. And people have not, bar one or two brave ones, have actually not called her out and told her to her face that she must go.
MF: Well, hang on, wait a minute, you say, ‘Not called her out’. I’m going to correct . . .
KG: Peter Bone has, Andrea Jenkyns has, Jacob Rees-Mogg certainly did. Boris Johnson hasn’t, interestingly.
MF: Well, hang on. I, twice, have written to Sir Graham Brady, calling on the Prime Minister to resign and twice I published my letter on the internet. So, with respect, you can add me to your list.
KG: I will definitely add you to my list.
MF: So, no, we were the movers behind the vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, 117 Tory MPs out of 300 —and, well, it was 317 at the time, that voted against. That’s over a third of the parliamentary party and a majority of the backbenchers. It was the payroll vote that saved her. So, you know, we saw a long way out that she was not the best person to lead the Conservative Party. I suspect that . . . we now know one way or another she’s going. I suspect after the European elections, which are, I’m afraid, going to be an utter tsunami, we are going to have a dreadful night. And I suspect after those results are made public, then the clamour for her to go will become unbearable.
KG: You don’t think that she’s managed so far to constantly outwit you all? Number 10 has outwitted you all every time, she’s still here, that she will bring, by the process of amendments, Corbyn and Co on line for this ultimate capitulation?
MF: Well, let us see what happens. But the number of colleagues who are against any Second Reading of the WA Bill is going back up, not down. Unless the Marxist does a deal with her, to abstain on the Second Reading, and at the moment all the talks seem to have broken down. But given the experience of the last two years, I accept you can’t rule anything out. But unless she does a deal with the Marxist, that Bill is going to be heavily defeated in the House of Commons. And I think that she will then have to go very shortly thereafter, because she’ll have been defeated four times on essentially the same strategy, and she simply cannot carry on. And even if that were not to happen, and I believe it will, we have the National Conservative Convention on 15 June, the so-called ‘parliament of the voluntary party’; they have been convened for one purpose, which is to discuss a motion calling for the Prime Minister to resign. This has never happened before in the entire history of the Conservative Party. So the voluntary party has made very plain where they stand and I believe that after Thursday, the Parliamentary party will match them.
KG: Aren’t you embarrassed to be a member of a party that is so now out of touch with its grass roots, that some . . . over 90 per cent say, according to that poll that Andrew Pierce published yesterday, for Conservative Voice, that 90 per cent of members are going to be voting for the Brexit Party. Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable in the Brexit Party yourself?
MF: No. I’ve never been embarrassed. The Conservative Party . . . I’ve been a member of the Conservative Party for 36 years and it’s been through thick and thin. Right? But I will live and die a blue. That’s my team and I believe there are a number of us, of MPs in the Conservative Party, who are extremely in touch with their constituents and the grassroots feeling in the party. And it’s for that, exactly that reason, we’ve taken the stance that we’ve taken all along.
KG: But you are losing them.
MF: I know that people have been resigning from the party, I completely get it. For the avoidance of doubt, I voted Conservative in the European Elections last weekend by post. Unlike Lord Heseltine. So I will vote Tory, you know, that is my team. What we need to do is to choose a Prime Minister that really believes in leaving the European Union, who actually voted in 2016 to leave the European Union and then they will form a new Cabinet that believes in leaving the European Union and then hopefully on Hallowe’en we will do exactly that.
KG: What do you think the chances of that happening are?
MF: I’d say they’re now better than 50 per cent, and I’ll tell you for why. Because if you’ve got . . . the critical thing is to have a Prime Minister that wants to leave. She’s never really wanted to leave. She’s always seen it as an exercise in sort of damage limitation and, even more importantly, the coterie around her, the rancid Mr Olly Robbins, Gavin Barwell, all of that lot, none of whom have ever wanted to leave, all arch-Remainers, have done everything they can to manipulate her to make sure that we remain in the European Union. If you then have . . . if you pick a Brexiteer to lead the Tory Party, that is a fundamental shift.
KG: If. If. See, the forces, the Remainer forces, you know, are massing against you, in the party and in the establishment. It’s happening. Philip Hammond, the so-called One Nation Tories . . .
MF: Yeah but it’s not my decision. The decision is: if we have a leadership election, that will be a decision for our members. Now, we didn’t do that last time. We all know why. But look at what happened to that. So it will go, it must go to our 130,000 or so members of the party. Paul Goodman and Conservative Home have run a whole series of, sort of, run-offs, you know, Raab vs Javid and Johnson vs Hunt and so on. And what they all show, absolutely plainly, by big margins is that the Brexiteer always wins.
KG: Even within the Parliamentary party.
MF: Well, the job of the Parliamentary party is to present two candidates to the members. It’s then the members’ decision. I am absolutely convin – well, as much as you can be convinced about anything in politics these days – that our members will pick a Brexiteer. I think the question is which one.
KG: Will the Parliamentary party allow a Brexiteer to go forward?
MF: Yes, because you only need, in order, because there are 313 colleagues, to get on the ballot paper you only need 109 votes. And 117 Tory MPs voted to no confidence in the Prime Minister. So I’m . . . you know, as an ex-senior whip, who can do the numbers, I’m fundamentally confident a Brexiteer will be on the . . . it could even be two.
KG: If it’s Boris Johnson, are you confident that he will deliver the Brexit that you want?
MF: Well, I have not decided who to vote for. I genuinely haven’t. Because, you know, Boris folded on MV3 but so did Dom. So, at the moment, I haven’t decided who to vote for. I will . . . I have one overall objective and that is we must leave the European Union. We must honour the promise we made to the British people, because if we’d don’t, all faith in democracy is gone. And I keep in my office a copy of this booklet, that cost £9.2million of all our money. It was delivered through pretty much every door in the United Kingdom in the run-up to the referendum. And on the back page it says, the heading of the page is: ‘A once in a generation decision’ and then it contains this quote: ‘This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide’. Well, the people decided to leave and the government hasn’t implemented it yet and that’s why we’re going to get absolutely hammered on Thursday, because you can’t keep conning the people again and again and expect them not to react. So, if we are to maintain that link in British society, where people believe that by going down to a polling station and getting their little stubby pencil and putting an X in one box as opposed to another, they can affect the destiny of their country, then we are fundamentally honour-bound to do what we told the people we would do and leave the European Union.
Part 2 of this interview follows tomorrow – and covers inter alia Mr Francois’s views on the ‘far Right’ demonisation of MPs like him, his loyalty to his party and the question of immigration. Is a problem or not?