The fearless Tory MP says the Foreign Secretary has lost all credibility writes TIM WALKER
It exasperates Anna Soubry that Theresa May has found it necessary to invite her cabinet to Chequers this week to try to bang some heads together about how exactly Britain should go about exiting the European Union.
‘We had the referendum more than two years ago and Theresa has been Prime Minister since then, and it’s frankly embarrassing that our government – facing the most important decision since the Second World War – still hasn’t worked out what it wants,’ says the Tory MP for Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire.
‘I’ve no idea what’s going to happen at this gathering and my greatest fear is that it’s going to result in still more fudging and still more delay. The situation we find ourselves in now is completely unacceptable.’
Soubry’s partner Neil Davidson says she was born without the fear gene, and, when I meet her in her cramped office in Portcullis House, where there is a framed Daily Telegraph front page branding her and others ‘mutineers’, she’s certainly in no mood to pull her punches. She senses that not just Parliament, but the whole country yearns for leadership, but it’s proved impossible for May to provide it while trying simultaneously to appease the Brextemists.
Their schoolboy antics make her despair: Boris Johnson feeling he can call May’s plans for a customs partnership ‘crazy’, Michael Gove ripping up a document that set them out in an epic hissy fit, and even a backbencher like Jacob Rees-Mogg emboldened to threaten her with rebellion if his gang doesn’t get what it wants.
‘I don’t consider these people to be Conservatives,’ she says. ‘The Conservative Party has always been pragmatic, and it has always been on the side of business. We have always understood that it is business that drives the economy, that provides jobs, creates opportunities, and pays for our public services. You can’t claim to be a Conservative and not care about what effects leaving the EU without a clear plan in place will have on business, or just saying – as Boris has – ‘f*** business’.’
At least half a dozen blunders ago, Soubry called for Johnson to be sacked and she sees his continued presence in the cabinet as a monument to May’s weakness.
‘I think Heathrow has shot away what was left of Boris’s credibility and his support in the country is haemorrhaging. I speak occasionally to him in the lobby. I think he is wary of me because, as a former business minister, I actually know something about business. His parting shot is always ‘it will be fine’, which disturbs me, as it means he does not grasp the seriousness of the situation he’s helped to place us all in.
‘My view of Boris is that he was never really a Leaver. He knew, as a former Mayor of London, that the Remain argument made sense as he could see that this great city could only thrive with free movement of people, but now, sadly, he is hoisted with his own petard.’
Soubry reckons May should have asserted herself when she was in a position of strength. ‘She should have said, when she first became prime minister and still had her majority of 12, ‘right, we will honour the result and leave the EU, but we will leave in a way that does the least possible damage to British business, and the way to do that is to stay in the single market, join EFTA and the EEA and maintain a customs union with the EU.
‘If she had started from that premise, she would have won the respect of the EU, who would have seen that she was facing up to the reality of what is on offer, which is basically a pre-existing model – so you either have Canada or Norway plus – and she would, in the process, have made the 48% who voted Remain feel they were being listened to.
‘I can understand why she needed to sharpen her Leave credentials by coming out with nonsense like ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, but she wasn’t fooling anyone. The ultimate worst deal is no deal. She didn’t need to surrender so much to the Brexiteers and she should certainly have made it clear – which she didn’t – that she would not put up with the poisonous atmosphere that then ensued in our politics, with the vilification and the profoundly undemocratic and intolerant approach to people like me.
‘She then made everything even worse by calling the general election in which 13 English and Welsh Conservative MPs lost their seats. We are now dependent upon the DUP to prop us up and the Brexiteers can threaten to bring down her government. This is obviously a very sorry state of affairs.’
Soubry recalls David Davis – the Brexit minister – assuring her in the House that he would deliver a deal that would provide the same benefits of the single market and the customs union. ‘Now he says that was only ever an aspiration.
The irony of all of this is that Mrs Thatcher got us into a great relationship with the EU, but, after we leave next March – and I fear we will – there will come a time when my children’s generation will want us to rejoin and they will never ever get the huge benefits that we enjoy now, so we will lose the rebate, we will probably have to join the euro and also Schengen.’
Soubry understands why, with all the abuse, talk of de-selections and even death threats, so many MPs are frightened, but she reckons indecision and weakness ultimately comes from the top. If she is critical of her own leader, she is assuredly no fan, either, of Jeremy Corbyn.
‘Amazingly, there are still people in the Labour Party who think JC will save us all, but he is not the Messiah. He is a proper old Trotskyite leftie. He is deeply anti-the EU mainly because he sees it as a conspiracy of capitalists, and the sooner people wake up and realise Labour is not going to deliver anything other than Brexit under Corbyn the better. I see him sometimes when I go to get a coffee, but I wouldn’t dream of wasting my breath trying to talk some sense into him. What do you think he’d say: ‘Do you know, Anna, you are right. Thank you so much. I will announce I am coming out against Brexit this instant?”
Soubry admits she has no idea how this story is going to pan out. ‘There is talk of a People’s Vote, but at the moment not enough of the people want one, and we hear, too, of plans to set up new parties. In the real world, people are fed up with this and they are not talking about it in the same way that people in London are. They just want us to get on with it. The trouble is they don’t know what ‘it’ is.
‘If you want to know what I want it is simply this: stay in the single market and the customs union. Job done. I’d be very happy if we got that. The trouble is we are dealing with obsessives. I certainly don’t think David Cameron, when he called the EU referendum, realised what these people are like or how duplicitous and ruthless they could be. Getting out of the EU meant more to them almost than life itself.
‘They couldn’t have been more shocked when they won and now they are going to be beggared if they’re going allow anyone to take this power away from them. We need to understand what we are up against.’