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The once reliable Tory backbench news barometer has been in need of recalibration for some time now. For several years, specifically the Boris Johnson years, you could tell precisely how indefensible things had become by who it was who had appeared on the television to defend it.
For standard outrages there would always be Nadine Dorries. Abominations: Michael Fabricant. Actual atrocities: Desmond Swayne.
It provided, if nothing else, an unerringly precise matrix through which to calibrate the stupidest people in Westminster. For example, the Johnson defence on Partygate moved on from “there were no parties”, through “I didn’t know there were any parties” to, “I didn’t know there were any parties even though I was at them” – it was only at this very latest stage that the decks of the rolling news channels were cleared for Messrs Fabricant and Swayne.
But what made life tough was the occasional re-emergence of Mark Francois, given that his stupidity is so profound it comes with its own magnetic field.
His role, since 2016, has been to turn up not when something stupid has happened, but when something sensible has happened, and to then say no to it, on account of it not being stupid enough for him.
Unsurprisingly, in the wake of an actual, meaningful breakthrough on Brexit, this has happened again. Francois is now head of the European Research Group, mainly because having taken over the government, most of the European Research Group now have cabinet jobs instead, so the only one left to run the European Research Group is the only one whom no one in good faith would let run a cake stall at a summer fete.
Francois was back, on Tuesday morning, with some breathless pronouncements to make, yet another rhapsody on the theme of “no”. The background is that the DUP have announced that they won’t back Rishi Sunak’s new Windsor Framework, which means they have now said no to every single form of Brexit that’s been put in front of them. And they’re quite correct to do so. They’ve worked out that it’s a completely unworkable catastrophe that, apart from making everyone poorer and their country a laughing stock, also threatens the unthinkable – a reunited Ireland. The only slight drawback is that they campaigned for it.
(The DUP also, back in the day, walked out away from the Good Friday Agreement, so it’s not like they’re not used to going out of their way to be on the wrong side of history. Indeed, if they saw the right side of history walking toward them, they’d cross the Shankill Road just to get out of its way.)
But there Francois was, saying no as only he can. He’d had the ERG’s “star chamber” of lawyers to look at it (the impossibly pompous name naturally provided by themselves). They’d concluded that it meant Northern Ireland would still be subject to EU law, and that the “Stormont Brake is practically useless”.
He paused for a moment after “practically’ and “useless”, unable to stop one side of his lip from curling upward as if to enjoy the salty taste of what he imagined to be big news right as it left his mouth. A very small, self important man, back in the big time, which is to say, back on Sky News for about three minutes at half past ten on a Tuesday morning.
Their crack legal team have worked out that it’s still going to involve some sort of EU regulatory oversight in Northern Ireland, and therefore potentially some degree of divergence with the rest of the UK. They’ve worked this out because absolutely nothing has changed since it was pointed out, in April 2016, that this is exactly what would happen. And it has happened, it happened almost seven years ago to be precise, but they can’t accept it because they have no choice but to live in a fantasyland where their own towering stupidity is someone else’s fault.
So Francois has no choice but to talk like the tough guy he imagines himself to be. When the Reverend Ian Paisley banged his finger into the lectern and shouted “Never! Never! Never!” he at least had his own cards to play, his own stake in the game. Now Northern Irish people have to listen to Francois talking tough on their behalf, refusing to compromise on something they didn’t vote for and don’t want.
Still, when the Windsor Framework is voted through on Wednesday, it’s not clear whether the TV cameras will have any need to point themselves at Francois ever again, just as they never used to before. Things will be back, almost, to normal. Worse, but normal, and that will have to do.
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