Bumptious as a regional manager, in big two-for-one horn-rim glasses, straining out of his suit, Mark Francois, member for Rayleigh, came to the lectern, and surveyed the audience. They were banked high in the lecture theatre of the Engineers’ building, an ancient stone’s throw from parliament.
It was standing-room only, a hard-Brexit Glastonbury. Shire types in their tweeds, home counties dividends divorcees in expensive windcheaters and a lot of eye shadow, hardcore wonks in sharp blue suits, amid political flotsam, in M&S check shirts, shopping bags of leaflets at their feet. Along the aisles, intermingled the media of the world: a dozen camos, 20 scribblers with pads out. On the wall behind, a huge Brexit clock: “3 Days, 10 hours, 29 minutes” etc, to Brexit.
“Well, the Spartan phalanx is well represented here… I’m not Boris, but I beat him for Rayleigh, so I must have better jokes. Or something.”
Huge laugh. Unforced, genuine. Francois had had a huge — too big — intro, but he overcame it. Then he went into his speech, as 20 phones, recorders ticking away on their own clock, ascended in the hands of journos, to catch his every word. It was noon, four days before a possible crash-out Brexit, and the “Spartans” were having their big outing. This was ostensibly a meeting of the Bruges Group, a Thatcherite talking shop on Europe. Really, it was the moment of a split on the hard-Brexit right.
Francois is vice-chair of the “European Research Group” — three words, three lies — the no-deal Brexit faction, but his co-officers weren’t here. Jacob Rees-Mogg, hitherto the face of no-deal Brexit is nowhere to be seen — and in the lobby earlier, waiting to go in, his name was being spat out, with derision and anger. Rees-Mogg had voted for May’s deal, third time around, as the least worst on offer, and has been cast into the outer darkness.
That shift brought Francois into the light, as he became the media’ go-to guy for an uncompromising no-deal position. Then the audience started to hear something new: someone “who hadn’t gone to fucking Eton” as one questioner would later put it (such was also remarked on by the European Commission). Francois grew up in Basildon, Essex. He’s got a master’s in war studies, of course, and he sounds like a man from the ‘burbs, though he’s spent most of his pre-political life as a business lobbyist. He is in open revolt against the Tory party, and announced that, if forced to go to another European election, the UK should just raise hell — a theme Rees-Mogg scrambled to keep up with.
With Theresa May in Europe, and a willing audience, Francois was in full flight. He is mocked among the Tories for incessantly referring to his Territorial Army (i.e. Army Reserve) days, so he began with a story from his junior minister of defence days. “Va boys I wuz inspectin’ said ve’d been set an ezzersize where I’d been taken ‘ostage, and vey adda gemme back. ‘And sir, you died! But we passed va test!'” Huge laughter, not least from Francois himself. He’s basically some combination of David Brent and Gareth from The Office.
Still the weekend officer training comes in handy (though the very posh meeting chair would introduce a subsequent speaker as coming from the “Real…er Royal Marines”). This was the chance to roll out the ultra no-deal position, and he took every opportunity to land a blow on the Tory party centre.
“Va pwain facd iz… ” (I’ll drop the Estuary English) “The plain fact is Theresa May has been telling the ERG for two years that the withdrawal act isn’t a customs union, and a week telling the Labour Party that it is!”
“Even Conservative Home, the party’s fanzine website, said today that Theresa May should resign.”
He went from ‘burban global culture — “this is the Hotel California deal” — to suddenly standing on his tippy toes and roaring out “The British House of Commons never surrendered to anybody! We will govern ourselves once again!” and came to the announcement that played across all media:
“If we have to contest the European elections, we will become a Trojan horse inside the EU, fighting it from within!”
Then the audience was on their feet, and Francois was back to the Commons for the ongoing battle over delaying withdrawal. There were a couple of minor players, but Francois was who they’d come to hear. Most of them were posher than he was, but they know how comical and toxic both Rees-Mogg and Boris are starting to sound to people. Francois sounds no-nonsense. He sounds like he knows what he’s doing, sounds like he doesn’t have much time for Latin. He sounds like Thatcher.
More exactly, he sounds like what they wanted Thatcher — a shires Oxford postgraduate, after all — to sound. This is the voice of that insurgency in the Tory party from the ’70s onwards, of middle-class social conservative liberals who despised so-called One Nation Toryism, and its inherently aristocratic/professional-Oxbridge base. Thatcher’s enthusiasts loved their Queen, but they had no time for the complex constitutional structure of the UK. They wanted an unmediated politics, and the market provided it.
Thatcherism was so good that the aristocracy took it back over. By the ’90s, the attempt to create a fully suburban middle-class Tory Party was done. The Bullingdon Club, the Borises and Jacobs and Davids returned. They are as ambitious and scheming as any suburban Tory, and they are willing to test their country to near destruction, but their class position makes it impossible to go all the way; their public projection, and their own self-constitution do not permit it. Having summoned up the referendum — which they thought they’d lose — they can’t follow its logic to the end, and fully commit to direct and mass democracy.
But Mark Francois can. And with glee. He is the voice that speaks to the Leave marchers, once they have lost their habitual deference to tossers like Rees-Mogg. The referendum, followed by the court decision which determined that the result must be ratified by parliament, followed by two years of skirmishing, have detached a direct democratic from the illusion that it could be maintained within the frame of existing conservatism. In one respect, you could say that hardcore no-deal Brexiteers represent the unfinished business of the 1688 Glorious Revolution. But they are also, of course, commingled with racists and chauvinists, and some — by no means all — are such themselves.
That’s out in the streets. In the catacombs of Westminster, the radical democratic impulse was already being swarmed over by the plotters and the conspiratorialists. As the drinks came round in the blue-carpeted, high-pillared reception room, a wild-eyed woman, her grey hair in a sweatband, approached me with a photocopied Christian tract to tell me that God was watching over Britain. In the belly of the beast, a Maoist from the Communist Party of Britain, the CPB(M-L) — “not the CPB! Don’t get us confused” — came to show me the party’s new nationalist line (“though few know this, Lenin was a patriot”). Then a booming, imposing man in pinstripe and a v-neck — like Tony Benn, but only in that respect — came over with with small retinue.
“You should ask me about my movement,” he said handing me a card for “14.7”.
“Sir William Jaffray? For what were you knighted?”
He dropped his eyes a little, condescending and embarrassed. “Well, it’s… I’m the fifth baronet Jaffray.”
“So surely you’d see the point that the UK can’t take back power and then ignore parliament, which is the essence of the UK?”
“Never! The people are sovereign!”
“Isn’t the sovereign sovereign?”
“No!” He roared. People turned. “This is what Cromwell fought for! We’ll fight for it again, in the streets!”
“But you can’t get fifty thousand out. The Remainers got a million.”
“Those figures are… I don’t like this conversation!”
Nor perhaps challenge of any sort. Jaffray, as it turned out, was famous as a Lloyd’s “name” in the ’80s and ’90s, who got destroyed in the collapse of that scheme. When the Law Lords threw out a challenge he led, he took it to the European Court of Human Rights, using Tony Blair’s despised Human Rights Act. Sovereignty! But first, sovereigns!
“You have to understand,” one of his white haired retinue said, as Jaffray trailed away. “The EU now have agents in all media.”
“Yes, didn’t you see they just changed the editor of the Daily Mail? And why do you think Nick Clegg runs Facebook?”
But he had gone. A few people were posing in front of posters for fake films, which excoriated prominent Leavers. Out in the world, Leavers are looking to people like Mark Francois as the representative of a new politics. Down Westminster way, as Theresa May looks to the EU to rescue her from her own party, right-wing Leave is rotting from within.