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Stormy Wetherspoons: Brexit pub boss on tour

Chairman of Weatherspoons Tim Martin. Picture: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

STEVE ANGLESEY’s Brex Factor on Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin

An education: Steve Anglesey had a gift for Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin when the pair met in Norwich. PHOTO: Archant – Credit: Archant

I resolved to start this article by saying something nice about Tim Martin, so here goes: The Brexiteer chairman of Wetherspoons has got a tremendous head of hair.

Long, silver and lustrous, it could win him work on Poldark or Game Of Thrones if the whole cheap booze thing goes wrong. Which seems unlikely given my local ‘Spoons is rammed from 8am to midnight and Tim’s personal net worth is estimated at £450 million.

But his other pet project is failing. Despite the pro-Leave propaganda on display in Tim’s pubs (the most recent issue of in-house magazine Wetherspoons News features around 10,000 words on the subject) and his regular, detail-hazy appearances on Today and Question Time, the Brexit Martin championed during the referendum is in chaos.

Which is probably why, on a Wednesday afternoon, he’s in The Bell Hotel in Norwich being cat-called and corrected by Remainers before sitting down for a quick chat with The New European.

‘I think it’s very unknowable,’ he says, when I ask him how he thinks the next few weeks will pan out. Does the haemorrhaging support for the no-deal exit he has trumpeted for years make him depressed? ‘You’ve got to try to keep your emotions on the flat,’ he replies, and starts into an anecdote about Australian squash champion Geoff Hunt. ‘I remember Rex Bellamy writing in the Times, ‘when he plays really well he never gets elated; when he plays badly he never gets depressed’.’

Since early January, Martin has been on a ‘free trade tour’ of 100 of his hostelries. When he arrived on TNE’s Norfolk doorstep, many of the crowd who welcomed him looked like they had also seen the inside of 100 Wetherspoons. Squash – neither the sport or the soft drink was on their agendas.

Martin’s audience was dominated by one demographic: White, male, 55 and over. I jostled for bar space with a bloke happily telling anyone who’d listen that on the previous night he’d been drinking with Nigel Farage in the hitherto unspoiled Norfolk seaside town of Wells-next-the-Sea. Close by, a man with a handlebar moustache and a home-made Brexit bus t-shirt displayed a sign he had made, on A4 paper, of the people he wanted to hold the EU’s three main offices after May’s elections (Farage, Alice Weidel of the Alternative für Deutschland and Marine Le Pen). He’d had the piece of paper laminated.

Martin stood up and said the sort of things he normally says on Today: no-deal means we won’t have to pay the EU £39 billion to leave, food and drink will be much cheaper in his no-tariff-paradise. Only here, unlike in his radio meetings with John Humphrys, he was challenged – something that has happened again and again on his tour. In Manchester, Martin seemed to concede that he would need to ‘check my books’ when his answer about immigration was queried; when asked who would fund the pensions of former MEPs like Farage if we withheld the £39 billion ‘divorce bill’, he replied that his research had not extended that far.

Stopped again and again by a handful of Remainers during his remarks – and seemingly aware of the tenuous nature of some of his arguments – Martin stayed unfailingly polite throughout. The one dodgy moment came when the only female dissenter to pipe up was immediately drowned out by braying Brexit blokes, with the handlebar moustache man brandishing his T-shirt at her in triumph.

Everyone else got what they came 
for: selfies for the Leavers, a few easy points scored for Remainers, a couple of gaffes to delight the handful of students who’d only come for a cheap drink between lectures (Martin greeted one wannabe questioner with a ‘yes, Madam?’ – the questioner turned out to be a man with a ponytail).

The most interesting bits by far came when Martin talked about sovereignty, and his experiences of growing up in Northern Ireland under rule from elsewhere – one more reminder of the weird grab-bag of reasons people voted Leave.

Inviting ourselves for a brief post-match chat, I asked Martin whether he was surprised by the level of animosity he had encountered on tour. ‘Most people are pretty fair and they accept the principle of debate,’ he said. ‘I don’t think I’m surprised by the level of emotion. It’s such an emotional issue; it’s where you’re ruled from, who governs you, and over the centuries nothing has evoked the emotions of humanity more than that question. I’m pleased when it’s quite civil. In Manchester I was taken aback slightly by some of the comments. But in the end there’s no point in me getting cross; it’s a democracy. I’ve had a good innings.’

Though the audience had already picked him up on it, I thought I’d challenge Martin on his tariffs mantra. After all, we currently pay nothing at all on EU produce, and on the vast majority of things he often mentions – coffee, rice, oranges. He complains about punishing tariffs on wine from Australia and New Zealand, but this amounts to less than 10p per bottle. Is he fibbing or am I missing something?

‘I think you’re missing this – it’s a tariff system of Byzantine complexity,’ he says. ‘You’re right, basmati rice is free of tariffs. But some rice has 10 pages of notes on tariffs.’ We don’t pay extra for Spanish oranges or Brazilian oranges when it’s winter in Spain, he admits. ‘But for Florida oranges there is a moving feast of a complex system – protectionism, mostly. There’s a huge prize in sweeping all this away.’ Really? When oranges from Spain are grown so much closer and are cheap anyway?

And then here comes the bit where I start to worry that Tim Martin might not be just a nice chap with different views after all. If there is such a huge prize in sweeping tariffs away, in a tariff-free scenario what would stop Martin using foreign producers to replace many of the small UK breweries who currently supply Wetherspoons? Or at least using them to drive down prices still further?

At first, Martin hints that consumers might just appreciate even cheaper drinks, no matter who produces them. Then he admits: ‘You can argue that you should impose import tariffs on things you produce within a country. I’m not sure, in the end, how beneficial that is. New Zealand swept away import tariffs on food and its economy has thrived. I don’t think the British brewers would be seriously jeopardised.’ He adds that while American and French newspapers are available in the UK, the public still prefer British ones.

I’d say this is like comparing apples and oranges, but Tim Martin doesn’t have the best record on oranges. But he does have great hair. ‘You should have seen it when I was younger,’ he admits. I think about making a joke of yet another Brexiteer longing for the good old days, but decide to leave it in the spirit of Leavers and Remainers getting along together.

Two days later Tim Martin goes to Portsmouth and dissent in the crowd means that for the first time on tour, he walks off early. He blames it on ‘professional agitators’.

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