Tue. Jan 9th, 2024


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Sunak accidentally ended a notorious Tory feud and it’s very bad news for him

8 min read

Mark Francois says ‘five families’ can’t back Rwanda bill

Mark Francois’s middle name is Gino, a gift from his Italian mother to represent his family heritage. So, it is little wonder he is revelling in his new role as a “mafia boss” of the right helping to bring together the so-called “Five Families”.

According to friends the European Research Group (ERG)’s chairman has already suggested that the theme music of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Godfather trilogy is played to open the next meeting.

But what should worry Rishi Sunak is that in this season of goodwill he has managed to create an alliance between Francois and the other main “Godfather” of the Tory right and end a feud between the two which had aided his rise to power.

Perhaps the most surprising picture of the last week was that of Francois and Common Sense Group founder and chairman Sir John Hayes stand shoulder to shoulder in front of the cameras as they gave Sunak an offer he cannot refuse on the Rwanda Bill ahead of the Second Reading vote.

The epic vendetta between the two men is writ into the recent folklore of Tory politics and their coming together now could mark a change of direction for the party.

Who are the Five Families?

The so-called “Five Families” are made up of the main groups on the right of the party.

The ERG is the oldest and has been central to waging war on Brexit. The Common Sense Group (CSG) was founded by Hayes in 2020 to tackle immigration and culture war issues and is closely associated with the third New Conservatives (NC) group set up by Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates.

The other two are Sir Jake Berry’s Northern Research Group (NRG) founded to support MPs including many in the Red Wall in the North; and Ranil Jayawardena’s Conservative Growth Group (CGG) founded to push through the economic ideals of the Liz Truss government.

They have all overlapped and many MPs belong to more than one of the groups, but their leaderships have all been divided by a mixture of disagreements on ideologies and clashes of ego.

It has meant that while they have each carved out their territories, they have largely been reduced to hit jobs usually in the form of letters to the Prime Minister signed by multiple MPs.

The feud between Francois and Hayes

But no division has hurt the right of the Tories in recent years more than that between the ERG and CSG. Much of it can be put down to the animosity between the two chairmen – Mark Francois and Sir John Hayes.

The bitter enmity between the two men is another Brexit classic and can be traced back to November 24, 2018, when it was revealed that Hayes was to become Sir John.

While the honour was deserved for a man who had held a number of senior ministerial posts and been part of the team to steer the Tories from Opposition, through coalition with the Lib Dems and into majority government, Francois saw it a different way.

It was all about context.

At the time Theresa May was Prime Minister and doing everything she could to persuade Brexiteers to back her appalling compromise with the EU over the Brexit negotiations. Francois smelt whhat he suspected was a treacherous sort of rat.

He reeled off a letter to Hayes with what he now admits was ill-advised and intemperate language saying pretty much that. Francois, a proud Spartan who among a handful of Tory MPs held out against compromise, was fed up of colleagues caving in.

The letter though tarnished what should have been a moment of undiluted joy for Hayes and subsequently the two barely, if ever really, spoke to one another again.

How the feud hurt the Tory right

With Francois in charge of the ERG and Sir John founding and leading the influential Common Sensers, the division became a serious problem because it meant the two leading groups on the right did not properly engage.

This became apparent when the right was left stranded in its attempts to save Boris Johnson and the could not properly come together to get behind a new candidate.

In some ways Liz Truss was always a compromise for the right not least because she was a Remainer in 2016 and had not exactly been at the forefront of the war on woke as a minister.

Without clear leadership Suella Braverman’s campaign was short-lived, and many were charmed into backing Kemi Badenoch, who was not ready.

But then, as the Truss government was collapsing, the idea of the two coming together began to be discussed but not soon enough because she was gone so quickly.

It was at this point that the divisions on the right hurt the most. The left of the party was ready with Rishi Sunak while the right floundered about deciding whether to back Boris Johnson or not. Braverman splitting with her mentor Hayes to back Sunak and Francois refusing to come out for Boris Johnson early killed off his hopes and led to the Sunak coronation.

Again, the stand-off between the families on the right – and Hayes and Francois in particular – had hurt them badly.

The great rapprochement

So how did Francois and Sir John end up standing together in the middle of Portcullis House in front of the cameras looking like fraternal allies rather than warring hood bosses?

The two have both told Express.co.uk that “there has been a rapprochement” between them. They have for the first time in five years spoken warmly of one another and the contribution each has made to the current struggle (Sunak and the Rwanda Bill).

In truth the origins of that healing of their relationship can probably be dated back to November 13 and Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle with the sacking of Braverman.

That day there was somewhat an awakening on the right that the Prime Minister had taken a side with the One Nation left of the party and “gone to war” with the right.

Old foes and rivals as well as newer blood realised that they had a common enemy and their survival depended on working together.

But then the fiasco over the Rwanda Bill sealed it and suddenly Hayes and Francois were instrumental in bringing the five families together.

Added to that the Chief Whip Simon Hart apparently decided to go to war with the right letting it be known he wanted to “crush” them.

His tactics of coercion and threats in the Rwanda Bill run-up only enflamed the anger further.

As one senior rebel noted: “You cannot threaten people when half your MPs re standing down and you are more than 20 points behind in the polls. You need to persuade instead. It was pretty inept.”

Another suggested that if Sunak wishes to survive, he “needs a new Chief Whip” and noted that it was clear Hart had no idea if the Government had the numbers to win until the very last minute.

How the Five Families worked together

The three main groups took it in turn to host and chair meetings as they approached last Tuesday’s Second Reading.

Francois chaired some of the full meetings with all members. Hayes had the inner circle of himself, Francois, Kruger, Cates, Jayawardena, the NRG’s chair John Stevenson, Braverman and recently resigned Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick in his office. While Kruger hosted other meetings in his office.

The ERG also provided the legal advice via Sir Bill Cash’s Star Chamber.

As Hayes noted: “It has been very collegiate, and we have worked well together.”

There have been problems. The New Conservative WhatsApp group includes people “on the government payroll” who some feel cannot be trusted as a result.

There was also a lack of a proper whipping operation or as one senior Tory put it: “It was badly organised” regarding organising the voting. Part of that was put down to the “inexperience” of the New Conservatives who were the main organisers.

“They didn’t have anywhere near the operation the ERG had during the Brexit negotiations,” one MP noted.

That was a key reason why they decided not to have a drive by shooting on the Prime Minister and decided to give him the equivalent of a horse’s head in his blankets by having a mass abstention with a demand for changes to the Bill instead of voting it down immediately.

It is probably true to say that while some are still unhappy that they were dissuaded from voting no.

But part of the tactics there was not to make Braverman look isolated if she was just one of a few rebels actually voting against. Afterall much of this is about potentially installing her as the next leader.

One senior MP noted: “I think it is safe to say that we did not have much time to organise before the vote, after Christmas it will be a different story.”

It means in the New Year Sunak will be faced with “at least one key amendment he must agree” or face “a significant rebellion on the third reading.”

“That will kill the Bill,” one MP said.

What it all means for Sunak

Beyond the Rwanda Bill though there are serious consequences for Sunak in bringing Hayes, Francois and the other leaders of the Five Families together.

His concern should not be only about those two veteran Godfathers of the right but also the young blood rising to the top including Kruger and Cates but also leading lights like Tom Hunt and Jonathan Gullis.

The last 18 months of the Tory party since Boris Johnson’s Premiership was rubbed out has been marked by political kneecappings, punishment beatings and assassinations and offers with the more united One Nation family on the left winning out.

But for the first time since the downfall of the party’s great Matriarch Margaret Thatcher the warring factions of the right have been united, and their common enemy is currently Sunak.

The Five Families represent up to an estimated 120 to 140 MPs much more than the One Nation’s exaggerated claims of 106 (most of whom are careerists with ministerial jobs).

If the Rwanda Bill rebellion gives way to letters demanding a confidence vote in the leader there are more than enough on the right to get the 53 needed and then the 100 plus votes required to mortally wound Sunak.

The issue then will be if they can unite behind someone like Braverman to be the next leader to complete the coup. There is still a lot of doubt about that.

In truth the Hayes/ Francois feud was just one of several dividing the right. The rivalries between some of the leading rightwing women MPs is just as serious if not more so.

But with Hayes/ Francois hatchet buried there is a lot for Sunak and his hapless Chief Whip Simon Hart to worry about in the New Year – and it is all of their making.

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