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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
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'Spartan Victory' - Interview with Mark Francois MP

Mark-Francois-Bruges-Group

"We were the 28 MPs who saved Britain, we saved our nation and this is the inside story of how we did it." The Rt. Hon. Mark Francois MP


The Bruges Group led the intellectual debate for Britain to leave the European Union and now we have the story from within, the story of the ERG from an MP who was at the heart of Brexit. 28 Members of Parliament saved our nation on 29th March 2019 by voting against the then Prime Minister's brexit withdrawal agreement for a third time, one of those MPs was Mark Francois and he has a new book out, 'Spartan Victory' which details the journey of a Spartan MP who voted against the deal all three times. I had the pleasure to sit down with Mark at the Carlton Club to discuss the must read new political autobiography.


First of all, I would like to pay tribute, both personally and on behalf of The Bruges Group, to the man who the book is dedicated to, the late Sir David Amess who we tragically lost earlier this year when he was murdered doing his job. Sir David was one of the hardest working MPs, a dedicated family man and a principled Christian, he will undoubtedly be missed in the House.


Background

"I think everyone in politics knows the story of the Spartans, at least anyone who followed the Brexit debate closely anyway! We were the 28 Brexiteer MPs who voted against the Prime Minister's Withdrawal Agreement all three times when she put it to the House of Commons in the so-called 'meaningful votes', the third and final attempt being on March 29th 2019, the day we were supposed to leave the European Union.


There's been several books written about Brexit from Michel Barnier to Gavin Barwell, both of whom obviously aren't of a pro-Brexit line of thinking! There had been virtually nobody who had written anything from an ERG or Brexiteer perspective, and certainly none from the Spartans so during lockdown I decided to write the 'inside story'.


I spent a year trying to get a publisher, I had a literary agent trying to get me a publishing deal and after three months he came back to me and said that the book was receiving positive feedback but we faced one huge problem - the industry is full of Remainers!


None of the Remain establishment elitists would go anywhere near my book, despite the good feedback, one company had liked the book and had seen the potential but it was pulled because the CEO disagreed with the narrative, this is what we were up against.


I spoke to Nadine Dorries, before she was promoted to Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as she has sold over 2.5 million books and is a very successful author. She told me that this story needs to be told and that I should go to Amazon and self publish, and that is exactly what I did, so every book is printed to order and is only available on Amazon in paper or hardback or on Kindle. At the moment we are actually #1 bestseller which means it is one of the fastest selling books this week on Amazon!


I want to prove the Remainers wrong, I want this book to be a resounding success and show that people want to hear our side of the Brexit story."


The Book

"The book is autobiographical, it starts on a council estate in Basildon, Essex where I grew up, hence why the first chapter is named 'From Alcatraz to Westminster', and then follows my journey through university, where I challenged John Bercow for the Chairmanship of the Society of Conservative Students. Oddly, I was the 'wet' candidate back then and Bercow was the right leaning choice, oh how times have changed! I also talk about some of my uni days, how I was very good friends with a certain former Lib Dem MP, Lembit Opik and once turned down a double date with one of the Cheeky Girls!


I served as a local Councillor in Basildon and worked on the 1992 parliamentary election with my dear friend Sir David Amess, when he historically and famously defended Basildon against all the odds in that general election.


I then threw myself into politics and my journey to Westminster, starting when I stood against Ken Livingstone in Brent East in the 1997 general election, from then I lost out to some bloke named Michael Portillo (who had famously lost his seat in 1997) for the selection for the 1999 Kensington and Chelsea by-election selection.



Then in 2001, I was selected as the candidate for the Essex constituency of Rayleigh and Wickford where in that selection I defeated someone named Boris Johnson, and in my book I describe the legend of the 2001 Boris interview for the constituency."


In Parliament

"I was now an MP, served a few years as a backbencher before being promoted to the Shadow Treasury team in 2005 by George Osborne and then as Shadow Minister for Europe as part of William Hague's Shadow Foreign Office team.


William and I spent countless days and hours fighting the Lisbon Treaty. In fact, we spent months working on the details of the Lisbon Treaty, researching every single clause and paragraph in the document. It was then I realised that after all of our research and hard work, we couldn't change a single punctuation mark in the whole document.


I was out for a drink one evening with my researcher Chris Howarth and that is when I had an epiphany, we could no longer remain in the EU and hope for reform, the line of thinking I had always adopted, but we instead needed to leave the European Union all together.


We nevertheless carried on in Parliament, scrutinising the Treaty and all of Sir Bill Cash's 500 amendments, God Bless his soul! It was after that when I confirmed that there was no other option but to leave.


It's interesting that back in 2008, not one of us thought we would have a referendum on EU membership in just eight years time, it was beyond our wildest imagination but then of course we saw the rise of UKIP and the pressure began to mount on David Cameron during his first administration.


People had lost confidence in the EU, the Great British public were losing confidence rapidly, especially after the debacle which was the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and politicians were starting to see that too, or at least some were!"


The Referendum

"I don't need to explain what happened on 23rd June 2016, it will be forever ingrained in our nation's proud history, but from there we were left with a dilemma, we were left with a Prime Minister who astonishingly didn't believe in Brexit.


The difference between the Lancaster House speech and the Chequers Agreement was stark to put it bluntly, and then of course the white papers were switched. We knew this was going to be a long fight for our country's freedom from that moment.


The Withdrawal Agreement was finally produced and what a document that was! It did precisely the opposite of what it was called, it kept us in the European Union indefinitely, and what I wanted to do in this book was decode that Agreement into plain English and show people what that deal really was.


I wanted to write this book to quote parts of the Withdrawal Agreement proposed by Mrs May and explain that in everyday English, I wanted to tell people what was really being proposed and why it was essential we voted against the deal and fight against it passing tooth and nail. After all, if it had passed Parliament, we would've been locked in a Customs Union with the EU thanks to the infamous Backstop."


The ERG

"I wanted to also explain how crucial our group was, the European Research Group, founded in 1993 by the legendary Michael Spicer following the Maastricht Treaty which essentially created the European Union from the old European Community.


The role we had in defeating the PM's deal was huge and I was keen to get our side of the story out there and tell people why we did what we did, which of course was stand up for our nation's sovereignty and its future."


The Fight From Within

"It all started really when we all lined up against the Prime Minister deal in the first 'meaningful vote', this saw the biggest ever defeat in modern British Parliament for any Government. The Government was defeated 432 to 202, an absolutely staggering defeat and a humiliating one at that. Theresa May was subjected to a vote of confidence within the Parliamentary Party which she survived but 'meaningful vote 2' would soon be upon us.


MV2 was obviously defeated in similar but less humiliating circumstances for the Government so then it was onto MV3, due to be held on 29th March 2019, the day we were supposed to leave the EU according to Article 50.


If this was a film, this is the climax of the plot, the day we were supposed to leave, the crunch time if you like, this is where there would be dramatic music in the background. Just before we were due to vote that day, the ERG held a meeting one hour before the division bells were due to ring, in the Grand Committee Room. There were several passionate speeches, both for and against, you've heard of blue on blue, this was a case of dark blue on dark blue! Some of the ERG were going to support the Prime Minister on this occasion and vote with the deal, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson.


It was 15 minutes before the bells were due to ring and this is when the room changed, Michael Spicer spoke, coming to Parliament that day from his death bed as he was seriously ill with Parkinson's Disease. He spoke very softly because of how ill he was but he insisted he would speak and address the meeting, and genuinely you could've heard a pin drop in that room. The emotion in his voice was on another level, he spoke of Maastricht and how he was vilified by his colleagues then and how we are in a similar position now, but he warned us that if we vote for this deal, it would trap us in the EU forever. He ended his speech by saying, "Please, please, please do not give in" and there were grown men in that room crying and holding back tears."


The Case for The Spartans

"I wanted to make one thing clear, I didn't name us the Spartans! It was a throwaway remark made to Steve Baker's predecessor as the MP for Wycombe, but the media loved it and so it stuck! To expand on that, the name actually derived from an article written by Paul Goodman in ConservativeHome which he entitled 'Enter - or rather exit - the Spartans'. This title actually did come from a conversation Paul and I had, in fact here in the Carlton Club, where I said that it was like the Spartans defending Thermopylae, they may have died but they defended their city, and Paul said that is what you are, can I use that in an article? I jokingly agreed and there it was the next day in his ConHome column!


The reason I made that analogy is because I would argue that the 28 Spartans literally saved our country from becoming a vassal state. Another reason for the comparison is because of the vilification we received for voting against the deal, the same vilification which Lord Spicer spoke of when he led the charge against Maastricht, I want to convey to the reader of my book what that feels like and the tremendous amount of pressure we were under to crack.


In Committee Room 9, Steve Baker made a wonderful speech, which can be found as appendix number four, where he spoke of "bulldozing Parliament into the River Thames", appendix five is my speech on the third 'meaningful vote' after the ERG Officers had recommended to vote with the government on the deal, including the then Chairman of the ERG, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Dr Julian Lewis compared the situation to 1940 in the meeting before the division bells rang, saying this really was our destiny at stake.


I hope that this book and these brief examples show how emotional our journey to get Brexit was, how much it meant to us as a group of Parliamentarians as it did to you, the public.


We knew that the votes of around 50 MPs would determine the outcome and the future of our nation, the whole country and the votes of 17.4 million people were relying on this division in the Commons. It had evolved from Leave vs Remain to Us vs Them, the people vs the establishment, if that vote had gone the other way that evening, why would anyone ever vote ever again?"


Meaningful Vote 3

"It had been apparent for some days that the ERG was going to be split for this vote; we were completely unsure on how many MPs were going to hold out and stay firm. The government had been telling people that they had managed to convince a significant number of Labour MPs to support the deal, using the threat of no deal to scare them into supporting the WA.


The vote was in the balance completely and as I said, it was going to be down to about 50 MPs and how they voted which would decide the outcome of the division. It really was the destiny of our great country in the balance.


In the end, it turned out that the government had only convinced five Labour MPs to support its deal, we knew there'd be a solid number of 20 Spartans as we were now known but we ended up with 28 in total.


After the vote, Rory, my assistant, and I walked out of Parliament to adoring crowds, we couldn't get through because of people congratulating us for voting against the deal, our plan was to go and get a drink and then watch Nigel Farage address the Leave Means Leave rally in Parliament Square. However, we couldn't get a drink because of people slapping me on the back to say 'thank you' and it's rather difficult to enjoy a pint when you've got people essentially mobbing you, but it was all worth it!


We went to Parliament Square again and backstage where Richard Tice asked me to speak after Peter Bone, a Spartan colleague, on stage to 11,000 people, I didn't even have a speech so I was told to "go and write one", I did and the crowd absolutely loved it, I've never seen such a passionate crowd in politics.


If Brexit and my journey and story of the fight from within tells us anything it is the role that chance plays in politics and how emotive this whole process was for me, as I'm sure it was for you."


The ERG's Senior Parliamentary Researcher and Secretary, Chris Howarth also spoke to me about the fight from within and of the roller coaster that Brexit was in Parliament, especially in 2018 and 2019.


"I was in Central lobby when the result of MV3 came up on the green screen. It was not a surprise to me as we had done a lot of arithmetic over the preceding days and weeks, but there was some relief that we had again held the line against the Chequers Deal.


It was fascinating watching differing groups of MP come out of the Chamber, a crestfallen David Lidington for one. However, despite the electric atmosphere I knew that this was not the end of the matter, the supporters of Chequers were not defeated, it could come back again and we would still have a hard job to ensure Brexit was finally achieved."


On the role of the ERG, in particular the Spartans, Chris spoke of how "Brexit was the result of many things but above all else it was a reaction to the way the EU had developed over several decades. Many in the UK were uncomfortable with the relentless centralisation of the EU. The Lisbon Treaty rammed through without a referendum being one of the final straws.


The ERG was founded in 1993 by Michael Spicer to support the then Maastricht rebels, concerned about the loss of UK sovereignty and the direction of the EU. Over the years the ERG and it's members kept the issue alive.


While the ERG's scrutiny of David Cameron's reform package and referendum legislation was pivotal it was it's role after Brexit that saw it take centre stage.


The ERG was consistent in its view that Theresa May's deal would have left the UK subservient to the EU, accepting laws and trade policies over which it could have no say. 'Vassalage' - out of the EU but run by the EU. While this may be self evident now, at the time it was very much a minority view, nearly the entire conservative movement and centre right press campaigned to deliver Chequers.


Without the 28 Conservative MPs who voted against Chequers we would still be trapped in the EU's orbit. They changed the course of history and ensured the referendum was honoured."


Rory Boden was also part of the inside journey and fight for Brexit, he works for Mark Francois and told me that the period in Parliament around the time of the 'meaningful votes' was "like a pressure cooker, countless passionate speeches, people who were so committed to their cause outside of Parliament with their placards and banners, shouting and cheering, it really was surreal.


The whole thing was like a circus and it really all boiled down to one vote, and like Mark said, we got mobbed as if we were heroes as we came out of Parliament on 29th March 2019 after Mark had voted 'No' to the deal."


This is a list of the Spartans, the MPs that truly changed history:

  • Adam Afriyie
  • Steve Baker
  • John Baron
  • Peter Bone
  • Suella Braverman QC
  • Andrew Bridgen
  • Sir Bill Cash
  • Sir Christopher Chope
  • James Duddridge
  • Mark Francois
  • Marcus Fysh
  • Philip Hollobone
  • Adam Holloway
  • Ranil Jayawardena
  • Sir Bernard Jenkin
  • Andrea Jenkyns
  • David Jones
  • Dr Julian Lewis
  • Julia Lopez
  • Craig Mackinlay
  • Anne Marie Morris
  • Priti Patel
  • Owen Paterson
  • Sir John Redwood
  • Laurence Robertson
  • Andrew Rosindell
  • Lee Rowley
  • Theresa Villiers

Thank you to each and every Spartan, we owe a great debt to you for standing up for us, our values and our democracy.


The final thing I'd like to say is please buy Mark's book, it really is worth a read and I can assure you, you will not be disappointed! 

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