There have been Eurosceptic Shadow Ministers for Europe, such as Graham Brady. There have even been Eurosceptic Ministers for Europe: consider the case of David Heathcoat-Amory, who wrote a book called “Confessions of a Eurosceptic” (just in case you were wondering where he stands). But there has only ever been one Party Europe spokesman who is now for Brexit and sat around David Cameron’s top table – Mark Francois, who was Shadow Minister for Europe from 2007 until 2010, during those early years of Cameron’s party leadership, and was a Shadow Cabinet member. Why will he vote for Leave?
I meet him in his Parliament Street office where – purposefully and deliberately – he takes me through his reasoning. He was out on a date when the call came from Cameron asking if he would take the Shadow Europe Minister post. “I had told her earlier: just to warn you, if you’re going to go out with me you’ll find that things can change at short notice”. Then she went to bar to buy a drink, and David Cameron rang me. He made the offer and I accepted it. Then she returned, and I said: “just to let you know – things have just changed at short notice.”
Short notice indeed: Francois’s appointment was made under pressure. Brady had just resigned over a row about grammar school policy, Cameron was near the nadir of his fortunes in opposition, and he needed a replacement who was unambiguously from the party’s centre-right. Francois was then part of George Osborne’s team (as was I) and “shadowing Red Dawn”, as he puts it – a reference to Dawn Primarolo, then Gordon Brown’s representative-on-earth over tax credits and formerly a left-wing firebrand, later a deputy speaker and now a member of the House of Lords.
He had long been “something of a Eurosceptic by instinct”, having made his maiden speech against the Nice Treaty, but had not been following the EU issue closely. Then suddenly he was plunged into it, dealing first with the movement of the Party’s MEPs from the European People’s Party to the fledgling European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group, and later with the European Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty. I remember him from those early years as seldom in the Commons because he was so often on a plane.
The ECR experience turns out to be important to his reasoning, because it turned out to part of a pattern, as he sees it. There was a lot of opposition to the Conservative MEPs aligning themselves with the ECR, not least from among some Tory MEPs and MPS themselves. “I remember being told endlessly that the move would never work, and that even if it happened the new group would collapse within a few months – yet now it’s the third largest group in the European Parliament. We were told that we would be taking – and he smiles ruefully – a ‘leap into the dark’.”
So it was, he says, with leaving the ERM. “We were told that if we left the ERM that economic disaster would follow, but actually the economy began to recover rapidly.” And then there’s the Euro. “Many in the establishment told us that the train was leaving the station – left behind, on our own, isolated: all sorts of scare stuff that turned out to be completely untrue. Thank goodness we kept the pound.” One is living in heady days when a Tory MP who is, by instinct, a loyalist speaks of “the establishment” like that.
Indeed, Francois is still a Minister – having served in Government first as a whip, then at Defence and now at Communities and Local Government: one of the diminishing band of members of the 2001 intake who have served continuously in office under Cameron both in opposition and government. But now, with 30 or so of his front bench colleagues, he is breaking with the Government’s position to back Brexit. Near the heart of his case is the thought that if so many supporters of Remain were wrong about the ERM, the ECR and the Euro, why should they be right now?
But it was the experience of dealing with the Lisbon Treaty in the Commons that helped to make up his mind. “One of the things that really did it for me was the treaty. I spent 14 nights in parliament debating this 300 page treaty and we couldn’t change a single word: Parliament had effectively been neutered.” The more he saw of the way in which the EU institutions worked, “the more I thought privately that we need to get out of this”. Not, he insists, that this was ever the position of his boss at the time, William Hague.
Francois defends Hague against the claim that the latter has U-turned on Europe. “I worked for William for three years, and don’t remember him saying, even in private, that he thought we should leave…the famous Sun article which spoke of a “cast iron guarantee” did go on to say providing the treaty hasn’t been ratified, but most people forget that.” However, it turns out that there was discussion in opposition about a referendum: “after some debate, we didn’t offer a referendum as part of a package”.
“The famous Sun article which spoke of a “cast-iron guarantee” of one on the Lisbon Treaty did go on to say providing it hasn’t been ratified, but most people forget that.” Instead, there was the “referendum lock” that was enshrined in legislation after 2010 – by which time Cameron’s priorities had changed. In 2007, he needed Francois badly; in 2010, he needed the Liberal Democrats. David Lidington became Minister for Europe and Francois went to the Whips Office. “Whatever side people take, David Cameron deserves credit for delivering a referendum,” he says stoutly.
But now he is taking a different path from his leader. “I give the PM credit for having had a crack at it, but I really don’t think the deal is sufficient,” he says, before zooming in on immigration – an important issue to his constituents in Rayleigh and Wickford, Essex. The emergency brake “won’t make very much difference,” he says. “If we’re going to reduce immigration materially, we simply can’t do it from inside the EU”. This former whip feels that it is sometimes necessary to take against the party line, and even cites Cameron as a precedent – and on Europe, too.
“The Prime Minister has said that, at the end of the day, Conservative MPs should follow their hearts. I think that’s a very intelligent way of dealing with this issue. When it comes to this referendum, I have absolutely followed my heart and I’m sure other colleagues have done the same – but its worth noticing that he may have said what he said because he did something very similar back in 1997 during the general election of that year, when he was parliamentary candidate for Stafford.”
“The Party’s position then on joining the Euro, under John Major’s leadership, was “wait and see”. But a lot of parliamentary candidates – I was one then in Brent East, up against Ken Livingstone, and David Cameron was standing in Stafford – declared in their personal election addresses that they would never vote to give up the pound (or similar wording). Indeed, I think that we were all featured in a double page spread in the Daily Mail as “Heroes of Britain”, or words to that effect. So I was one of those who broke with the line and so was he. So there’s an example of where he followed his heart, and perhaps this explains why he thinks it’s acceptable for others to do something similar”.