An inside story with few insights: Jolyon Maugham reviews Mark Francois’ 'Spartan VictΩry'
Alamy | Mark Francois on stage in Parliament Square, London 2019
Largely a partisan chronology of ERG attempts to break the Brexit deadlock, and with few personal insights into his remarkable rise from working-class boy to Tory MP, Mark Francois’ book is a missed opportunity
Imagine yourself, if you will, Mark Francois. A working-class lad – born to a mother who comes from Italy to work as an au pair and a dad who becomes a heating engineer after being demobilised from a stoker on a coal-fired minesweeper. At 14 your father dies suddenly and your mother becomes clinically depressed. Besides studying for your O and A-levels you become her carer – in between her visits to psychiatric wards.
And still, from a comprehensive school intake of 226, you are one of two to make it to university. You beat off competition from Boris Johnson to win the party nomination for a safe seat which you hold and then strengthen over successive Parliaments. You become a member of the European Research Group (ERG) and argue for – and from a narrow referendum mandate help extract – a hard break from the United Kingdom’s near 50-year membership of the European Union. And for a time you’re mooted as a possible future leader of the Conservative Party.
Rich soil for any number of narratives. An expose, perhaps, of the class snobbery that underlies so much of our national discourse. Maybe a slim Sun Tzu volume on winning in modern politics. Or, victory now won, you seek out a place in history by bringing the nation back together.
With Brexit the incantation was enough
All those books would have been worth the reading. But Spartan VictΩry – the omega of the title is never explained – is none of them. What we get instead rarely rises above partisan chronology of the ERG’s attempts – that ultimately failed, like all others in Parliament – to break the post-referendum deadlock.
The “Origin Story” chapters give us no more on personal motivation than that his father, after “a sherbet or two,” at last opened up about the deaths he had seen in the War and extracted a promise that 10-year-old Mark would “never, ever, take living in a free country for granted”. Mark has a “sixth sense” that one day the “country would come under threat again” and it was his duty to resist.
And the ERG? Seven times in 14 pages Francois intones of May’s 2018 white paper that it meant we would “not actually leave the European Union at all”. That’s not, to this reader at any rate, conspicuously true. She proposed that we leave the single market, the Customs Union, the common agricultural policy, the common fisheries policy, cease payments to the EU and, let us not forget, no longer be a member of the European Union.
But how much is Francois to blame for this?
With Brexit the incantation was enough. The lesson, for those of us who needed to learn it, is that the right spell will bewitch a nation. The trick is to be the wizard who casts the spell and not the volunteer who explains to a public, restive as the spell wears off, what happened. That task is one Brexit’s thought leaders have politely eschewed. And you’re left to wonder whether Francois’ real mistake is not what he stuck in his book but that he wrote one at all.
Jolyon Maugham is director of the Good Law Project
Spartan VictΩry: The Inside Story of the Battle for Brexit, by Mark Francois is published by Kindle Direct Publishing
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