Mark Francois is MP for Rayleigh and Wickford and Vice Chairman of the European Research Group.

A fortnight ago today I had the privilege of representing the European Research Group at the funeral of the Group’s founder, Baron Spicer of Cropthorne – probably better known to most ConservativeHome readers as Sir Michael Spicer MP.

The small parish church in Cropthorne was absolutely packed to the rafters, such that an informal “overspill” area had to be provided on the lawn outside. Such was the attendance that even Daniel Hannan MEP, the ERG’s first ever researcher, had trouble getting into the church. A number of Parliamentary colleagues, both past and present, were there to pay their respects, including Sir Patrick McLoughlin, Sir Simon Burns, Sir Gerald Howarth, Christopher Frazer, and myself.

The service was a beautiful one, including a eulogy from one of Sir Michael’s oldest friends from prep school days, some traditional hymns including “I vow to thee my country”, and some lovely readings, including from five of Sir Michael’s very eloquent grandchildren.

It was clear not just from the attendance but the atmosphere in church that Sir Michael had been dearly loved, not just by his colleagues but by his constituents, for so many years, many of whom also attended to pay their respects.

After the service, Sir Gerald kindly gave me a lift back to London and we chatted about Sir Michael’s life and what he had achieved, not just as a minister and as Chairman of the 1922 Committee (during which he oversaw three leadership elections) but also in his role as (effectively) the Chairman of the Maastricht rebellion and, thereafter, his crucial role in establishing the ERG.

Following Maastricht, Michael decided to establish what became the European Research Group, such that if ever there was another comparable episode, Conservative MPs would have access to an organisation which could give them detailed and accurate briefing on the vital issues at stake. The Group was subsequently formed in 1994 and began to produce detailed research papers on all aspects of the UK/EU relationship. I joined the Group as a recently-elected backbencher back in 2002 and many other Parliamentary colleagues have followed since.

During our drive, I recounted a visit to Guildhall, for the book launch by the late Roy Jenkins, of his wonderful biography on Winston Churchill. At that event, Greg Barker (then another recently elected colleague) beat me to the punch, in asking the octogenarian biographer (who incidentally spoke for well over an hour without a single note) “What would have happened if Churchill had never lived?”.

In his confident reply, Roy Jenkins argued that if Churchill had never existed, Lord Halifax would have almost certainly become Prime Minister in 1940 and done a deal with Adolf Hitler – which would probably only have delayed the eventual subjugation of this country.

That made me wonder, by the same token, what would have happened if Sir Michael Spicer had never existed?

Well, perhaps someone else might have Chaired the Maastricht Rebellion – which might or might not have turned out differently as a result. However, if no one had created the ERG – whose efforts highlighted why the so-called post Chequers “Withdrawal Agreement “ would actually have turned the United Kingdom into a vassal state – then it is at least possible to argue that without its determined and well informed resistance the Withdrawal Agreement would already be on the statute book and we would now be locked into a customs union, without a unilateral exit, and thus effectively bound into the European Union, forever.

I therefore believe that, alongside others, I recently attended the funeral of a man who saved his country. As we stood on the lawn of the Spicer’s manor house (located directly next to the church) following the service, I looked out over the Worcestershire countryside in the valley below and thought how fortunate we were that this man had not only existed but that he had devoted his life to politics and the service of his country.

With luck, by the time his memorial service at Westminster is arranged for later this year, we could be living in a free and sovereign nation again – which would be the most fantastic and fitting tribute to the memory of this quite exceptional man.