Who actually got Brexit done?
Mark Francois’s Brexit book is a timely corrective to the Cummings narrative
It was 29 March, the day the UK had been due to leave the EU. A crowd began assembling outside Westminster, one half in Parliament Square and the other filled Whitehall. The Parliamentary authorities sent out a security alert advising MPs staff to leave early and to keep their passes hidden. At St Stephen’s Tavern, scores of drunk men urinated into the estate, creating a stream across a path MPs use to get to their offices.
Aware of the date’s significance, Prime Minister Theresa May hoped the pressure from outside would force her critics to pass her EU Withdrawal Agreement. She’d tried to pass it twice before and the number of rebels had been falling. Except for the Telegraph, the pro-Brexit media had largely sided with the beleaguered Prime Minister. Paul Dacre had been replaced just months before as Mail editor by the pro-Remain Geordie Greig, leading to a finger-wagging headline on the 29th telling refuseniks they had “one last chance” to vote for it.
The wisdom of the pundits, even the pro-Brexit ones, was that MPs had to pass the deal to avoid losing Brexit. “Where is your path to victory?” they would hector on Twitter, TV, and in the pubs around Westminster. The pro-Brexit hold-outs didn’t quite know, they just realised that the path would no longer exist if they voted for it. “If Theresa May’s deal gets through and we have a second referendum, I’ll turn my campaign into a pro-Remain one”. One prominent Brexit activist told me at the time. ”The deal is worse than EU membership, how could I support it?”.
Tory MP Mark Francois writes about this period in his political memoir Spartan Victory, which is a corrective to the simpler but false memory that seems to have developed that Boris Johnson “Got Brexit Done” with the help of Dominic Cummings. In fact, Francois reveals that even after Johnson was elected, Cummings had still never read the Withdrawal Agreement he had inherited. Like an A-Level politics student, he was parroting the phrase “no parliament can bind its successors” as if it applied to EU treaties. When Francois pointed out that this was not true, Cummings was apparently appalled. ”Why do you think we’ve been fighting this bastard thing, tooth and nail for well over a year?” asked the exasperated MP.
The hold-outs against Theresa May became known as the Spartans, a name Francois reveals he gave to ConservativeHome’s Paul Goodman. But they, and especially Francois, became easy prey to parody. Francois’s comment to Beth Rigby on Sky News a few days before the final vote that “I was in the army, I wasn’t trained to lose.” led many critics of Brexit to portray him, and the Spartans, as a hapless Dad’s Army force. His self-published memoir was mocked by his TV nemesis Will Self as “illiteracy on parade” for its spelling mistakes and idiosyncratic punctuation. But in reality, the literacy of the Spartans was a crucial factor in their eventual victory.
Ultimately the Spartans prevailed and defeated Theresa May and her deal
The Conservative Party, and indeed Government Ministers, have a long history of not reading EU treaties. Ken Clarke famously admitted he hadn’t read the full Maastricht Treaty and in 2009 Labour’s Europe Minister Caroline Flint admitted to her shadow, one Mark Francois, that she hadn’t read the Lisbon Treaty that she was responsible for guiding through parliament. In December 2020 Fisheries Minister Victoria Prentis admitted she had not read Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement because she had been too busy organising a nativity and the following month the Prime Minister’s Spokesman refused to say whether Boris Johnson had read every word of it either.
So there was perhaps something un-Conservative about the ERG’s insistence on reading every word of Theresa May’s deal. But Francois says knowing the detail of the agreement led to the Spartan’s logic: “we believed that if we were to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, Theresa May would not stand down… and we would certainly enter the Backstop from which… we could never escape”. Steve Baker, the long-standing leader of the ERG agreed:
Was the path clear? No. It was a huge gamble but we knew it was a huge gamble. Dominic Cummings told us we were Remain’s “useful idiots” and we knew we weren’t. We knew we needed a new Prime Minister and a new mandate but we just were not clear how we would achieve it.
It was the fact there was no break clause that prevented them from voting for the deal despite other Brexiteers warning that if they did not pass the agreement, Commons Speaker John Bercow could allow rebel MPs to vote through a second referendum bill, and an angry public could wipe out scores of Tory MPs in a likely General Election.
But if the Spartans didn’t have a clear path, the Brexiteers who voted for the agreement had a plan destined to fail. First, they needed to accept another binding EU treaty which would give the EU control over British laws and keep the UK in a Customs Union. Then they needed to oust the victorious Theresa May from No.10, a woman who would be hailed as the hero who finally resolved the Europe question. After taking power they then needed to break the freshly signed treaty and then re-open negotiations with a now-furious Brussels. (If this last point seems remotely possible, consider how unwilling Liz Truss is to change aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol despite the fact that the treaty allows the UK to do it legally).
But ultimately the Spartans prevailed, and the third defeat of Theresa May’s Withdrawal agreement signalled the end of her premiership. Their resistance to immense pressure probably stopped a number of Labour MPs from breaking their own whip to rescue the agreement and the deal became as toxic as a Russian oligarch. But it was a close run thing. According to Anthony Seldon’s May at 10, on the morning of the vote Steve Baker had decided to back the deal and it was only after he bumped into Suella Braverman, a former ERG chair, in a Commons corridor that he rejoined the Spartan fold, after she reportedly made it clear she was “revolted” by his decision.
The Spartans didn’t achieve Brexit in its entirety. Boris Johnson’s new deal left Ulster subject to EU laws, and a modest increase in fish quotas left many fishermen feeling betrayed. But it’s hard to imagine that if Theresa May’s deal had passed a better Brexit could have been achieved. It’s said that success has many fathers. The delivery of Brexit (for GB) was indeed the result of many more people than the 28 Spartans, but without them holding the pass at a critical stage, it would have very likely failed. Will Self and his tribe mocked the likes of Francois, but three years on from the vote it’s clear who had the last laugh.
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