Mark Francois says he’s not going away as he becomes chair of ERG

PUBLISHED: 21:58 13 March 2020 | UPDATED: 22:33 13 March 2020

Mark Francois is interviewed by host Christopher Hope at the event organiser by the Daily Telegraph. Photograph: Contributed.

Mark Francois is interviewed by host Christopher Hope at the event organiser by the Daily Telegraph. Photograph: Contributed.

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STEVE ANGLESEY rejoices as Mark Francois shows signs of returning to the political scene.

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Is it just me, or since January 31 have you felt that something is missing? Something which was laughed at and taken for granted, something which cost relatively little but delivered so much, something we imagined would always be there, right up until the very moment it was taken from us?

I refer of course to the hole left in all our lives by the absence of Mark Francois from the political scene - a tiny hole shaped like Penfold from Danger Mouse but a hole nonetheless - since Brexit night.

Last seen promising to 'go to one party or another, then stay up all night and watch the sun rise on a free country', the wee warrior has been quiet since, his booster seat at the Sky News studios growing dusty in his absence. But now winter is almost over and the green shoots of a glorious Francois spring have started to emerge.

First was news that our hero had been successfully drawn in the Commons' latest private member's bill ballot, and would therefore be bringing forward legislation to introduce financial penalties for overrunning roadworks. It sounds suspiciously like an old idea that the arch-Remoaner John Major once discarded, but just as Beatles junkies seize on throwaway demos and out-takes, even half-baked cover versions like this are manna from heaven for hungry members of the Francois Fan Club.

Next came a sighting of the pint-sized patriot out for a beer in High Wycombe with local MP Steve Baker, whom he has replaced as leader of the questionably-named European Research Group. The Scooby and Scrappy Doo of Brexit picked new bar Heidrun, where Francois celebrated ultimate victory over Guy Verhofstadt by quaffing, erm, a Fruli Strawberry beer from Belgium. Epic Brexit bantz!

Then, on the evening of Tuesday March 10, Francois achieved full re-entry into our political atmosphere at the Daily Telegraph's 'Heroes of Brexit' event at Chelsea's Cadogan Hall.

Flanked by Leave's Admiral Akbar Nigel Farage and its Princess Leia, Allison Pearson ('I'm not a hero of Brexit, I'm a humble handmaid of Brexit,' she said) everybody's favourite Ewok did not disappoint on his return to the spotlight, during which he was hailed by host Christopher Hope, with a characteristic lack of hyperbole, as 'the pin-up boy of the Brexit movement' whose face 'should be carved into the white cliffs of Dover' as part of a 'Mount Rushmore of Brexit'.

Francois had teed up his appearance with a typically well-reasoned Telegraph column which praised the 'cool and calm leadership of Baker', who told an ERG meeting in March 2019 that he was 'consumed by a furious rage' and who went on to call for parliament to be shut down for a lengthy spell so we could leave the EU with no-deal.

Francois' on-stage interview with Hope contained many of his trademark references to conflict. As the audience waved tiny plastic union flags, he explained: 'Before we fought this battle we spent months trying to negotiate. Jaw-jaw was better than war-war, if you like.


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'After Chequers we thought we could either surrender or fight, so we resolved to fight… We fought and we fought to win and we will see what historians make of it.'

He said how much he loved the 'Spartans' nickname pinned to the hardcore Brexiteer MPs who saw off Theresa May. 'The story of the Spartans is of people who refused to bend the knee even unto death,' he marvelled. 'There are worse things in life to be compared to than the Spartans.' It might be worth noting at this point that the Spartans were all slaughtered.

As for the ERG, now under his chairmanship, he noted 'the submarine remains at sea'. His Spartan friends are all aboard! Many more of them live next door in the Lords! It's just as well that Mark Francois has almost certainly never seen Das Boot.

All of this was lapped up by the crowd, who especially loved it when the diddy dissenter told them May's deal was 'An internationally binding treaty which would have kept us in the EU forever' (it wouldn't) and when he declared: 'If I had a choice between being a poor man and free and a rich man and servile I would be poor and free'. The luxury of a rich man there, and the real manifesto of Brexit. Who cares about food? Let them eat the cake of sovereignty.

The biggest news of the night was that Francois is writing an autobiography, with the title You Really Couldn't Make It Up. He said he hoped it would bring him more money than the Telegraph event, for which he was not being paid. 'I guess I didn't negotiate very well,' he said, with heavy irony. He might have called in Mrs May to help.

The one bit of dissent on the night came after Francois had praised Boris Johnson for his Withdrawal Agreement and for making speeches 'Steve Baker and I could have made'. Nigel Farage called the agreement 'a bad deal which the EU loves because it breaks up the union'. No flags waved. Who to support?

Could it be that even Mark Francois is not Brexity enough for some Brexiteers? Watch this space.

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Steve's selection of the week

DARREN GRIMES

The Charlie Bucket of Brexit - no golden ticket, but he did get £650,000 from Vote Leave to spend on whatever he liked! - has good reason to hate bullies. 'I was quite badly bullied for being gay at a rough comprehensive,' he said last year. Grimes has called the EU a 'wretched, bullying racket', John Bercow 'a bullying oaf' and Carole Cadwalladr 'the biggest media bully there is.'

So what's his view on multiple accusations of ministerial bullying? Says Darren: 'I'm increasingly coming to the view that the person being bullied here is actually Priti Patel herself.' As he tweeted on March 3 of Labour and Bercow: 'It's the hypocrisy which astounds me.'

PETER BONE

The Sven Goran Eriksson lookalike is complaining that his plan for a new bank holiday to 'celebrate our United Kingdom' is receiving little support from the government.

Perhaps that's partly because it's a Brexit bank holiday in all but name. The Wellingborough MP wants us to take a day off on June 26, the closest Monday to the date of the 2016 referendum, June 23.

Bone argues that the holiday would be for all citizens to celebrate the UK as a whole but somewhat spoiled things by adding that Remainers who did not fancy taking a day off to mark Brexit 'can always work on United Kingdom Day'.

ANDREW BRIDGEN

The North West Leicestershire MP scored a nice PR win when he visited a primary school in Measham, where pupils have written to Boris Johnson about their climate change concerns.

Deputy head Felicity Knight said that the MP was 'very knowledgeable with his facts.'

One wonders if Bridgen told the children that of the 13 key Commons votes on climate issues since he was elected in 2010, he was present for only 10 and voted positively on just one occasion? Or that in 2015 he wrote in the Daily Telegraph that he was 'going to war' with the BBC, partly for its coverage of global warming?

ANN WIDDECOMBE

'I can not help feeling we are going mad over coronavirus,' wrote Ann in her Daily Express column, reminding readers that 'we need a sense of proportion… We have had the scare of SARS, bird flu, Ebola and of course AIDS. None proved as devastating as feared'.

That rather depends on how devastating you feared AIDS to be. So far it has resulted in 32 million deaths, including an estimated 770,000 fatalities in 2018. But since those affected tend not to be your typical Brexiteer Daily Express reader, this ongoing global catastrophe seems to have passed Ann by.

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