The Saturday interview
Next to the desk in Anna Soubry’s office at the House of Commons is a framed front page from the Daily Telegraph of 15 November 2017. “The Brexit mutineers” screams the headline, above photographs of the 15 Tories who had said they would vote against enshrining in law 29 March 2019 as the date on which the UK would leave the EU. Soubry’s parliamentary staff got the front page signed by her fellow “mutineers” and had it framed as a birthday present last year. For her, it is a badge of pride.
The fight against Brexit has dominated her life for the past two years. With Labour incoherent and Jeremy Corbyn – in Soubry’s view, at least – a committed Brexiter, it has fallen to her and a handful of other backbenchers to keep up the pressure for another referendum or, at worst, the softest possible Brexit.
Her office is full of memorabilia from the battle. On her desk are other newspapers berating the Brexit backsliders: “Great Britain or great betrayal” cries the Sun; “Ignore the will of the people at your peril” proclaims a front page from the Daily Express; a Daily Mail front page has the headline “Proud of yourselves?” above photographs of the 11 Tories who sided with Labour last December to defeat the government and require a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal (although the attempt to force such a vote was ultimately defeated a week later). I also notice a letter from a Labour MP congratulating Soubry on her inspirational efforts to keep the EU flag flying.
Soubry is convinced that the deal Theresa May hopes to bring back from Brussels in the next few weeks will be worthless. “The promise was that we would have a deal about our future trading relationship with the European Union,” she says. “Everything would be settled. But we’re not going to get a deal. We’re going to get a withdrawal agreement and our future trading relationship will not be determined until after we’ve left the European Union. That is not what the British people were promised; that is not what they voted for. It is the most terrible betrayal. When the history books are written on this period, it will reflect exceedingly badly on an awful lot of people, who have put their heads in the sand and allowed this terrible mistake to take place.”
Her talk of history books leads me to wonder if Soubry believes the battle is over. “I almost don’t want to engage with people any more,” she says. “I just want to put it down for history: these opportunities existed and they were missed by people who should have known better. This will be the biggest mistake our country has ever made. The young will never forgive my party.” In the next breath, however, she says the fight for a “people’s vote” must continue. She led the people’s vote march in London on 20 October, giving a powerful, impassioned speech to a vast crowd in Parliament Square, and still believes the public may get a final say.
“Anything is possible,” she says. “If she [May] can’t get a withdrawal agreement because of arguments over the Irish backstop, which some utterly irresponsible people in my party who haven’t run so much as a whelk stall believe should be the case, what is plan B? Crashing out? Even if she comes back with a deal, she may not get it through parliament and if she can’t get it through parliament, what is plan B then? From what I can gather, she doesn’t have a plan B, and of course the great plan B is a people’s vote. A general election won’t solve her problem, but a second referendum with remain on the ballot paper will.”
Soubry predicts a withdrawal deal will be patched together in Brussels and that parliament will vote on it next month. “There’ll be a shaking of hands [in Brussels] and lots of warm words. It will come back into the house very quickly – there’ll be none of this five days of debate, you can forget that – and the pressure on Conservatives will be absolutely colossal.” She insists she will not vote for a vague deal that dodges all the big questions on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. She also thinks the government will do its damnedest to avoid putting an amendable motion on the deal to the house, preferring a take-it-or-leave-it approach. “That would be a disgraceful betrayal of promises that were given,” she says.
Her hopes that there will be another referendum have risen because she doubts whether, despite pressure from whips and the desperation of MPs for a resolution, May will get the agreement through the Commons. “It’s quite obvious that David Davis is up for not voting for whatever she comes back with – and he will take 20 or 30 rebels
If Boris Johnson becomes leader, I’m off ... he’s incapable of holding high office, never mind being prime minister
It is in both front benches’ interest not to have a people’s vote, so it must be in everybody else’s interest that we do
with him,” she says. “He clearly sees his opportunity.
This is part of his campaign to be the tough boy on
Brexit. He’s the one who’s on the radio, completely unchallenged by John Humphrys, unfortunately. Did you hear him on [Thursday’s edition of] Today? I had to go under the duvet and scream into the mattress, I was so cross. He’s becoming the champion for the [strongly proBrexit] European Research Group [ERG].” Boris Johnson’s chance of usurping May has not disappeared entirely, she says, but Davis is the one making the running.
Davis’s supporters will interpret a Commons defeat for May as a green light for no deal, says Soubry, which is why pro-EU MPs have to ready with a counterstrike. “The idea that if you don’t vote for her deal you’re voting for no deal is completely wrong,” she says. “If you’re not going to vote for her deal, you can absolutely have the option of going back to the British people. A vote with remain on the ballot paper is the credible alternative to this madness.”
She believes the fact that Arron Banks’s role in the leave campaign is now under investigation has strengthened the case for another referendum. “It has disturbed an awful lot of leave voters, who are suddenly thinking: ‘What’s been going on here?’” she says. “It adds to the feeling that a trick has been played on them.” She was also buoyed by this week’s Channel 4/Survation mega-poll, which showed an eight-point lead for remain. “I’ve felt the uncertainty in people’s minds and I’ve always said there could be a tipping moment when suddenly people say: ‘This is absolutely not on. We’ve made a mistake and have a right to revisit the mistake we’ve made.’”
She fears the two front benches are conspiring to thwart a second referendum. “We are in danger of ... the opposition and the government conspiring together to prevent the people from having the right to revisit the decision they made two and a half years ago,” she says. “Two and a half years on, with all that’s emerged, including the situation on the island of Ireland, you bet your life that people are entitled to change their mind. It is in both front benches’ interest not to have a people’s vote, which means it must be in everybody else’s interest that we have one.”
She blames the Labour party’s failure to provide constructive opposition in the past two years for much of the current mess. “We’ve got an utterly, blisteringly dreadful Labour front bench,” she says. “The way they’ve let down the British people will also be written in history. They could have led the way on delivering the referendum while maintaining peace in Northern Ireland and prosperity in the country. They are the ones who should have been making the case for the single market and the customs union.”
Soubry also mocks the Brexit secretary, Dominic
Raab, over his sudden realisation of the significance of the Dover-Calais crossing to UK trade. “The level of ignorance is breathtaking,” she says, suggesting that Raab’s predecessor was equally culpable. “David Davis said in an answer to me nearly two years ago that: ‘We will get a deal that will confer the exact same benefits of the single market and the customs union as we have now.’ He didn’t say this was our ambition. He said we’ll get the exact same terms. That’s why Labour used that in their six tests [against which the party will judge
May’s Brexit deal]. It’s all baloney.”
She says many other Conservative MPs now acknowledge the merits of retaining membership of the single market and customs union. “Some of us have been campaigning for this for two years, at considerable personal cost – death threats [from Brexiters], abuse, threats of deselection. I’m delighted that some of my colleagues have seen the benefits of this position. It’s just a pity they didn’t actually vote for it when they had the opportunity. That would have changed the course of Brexit’s history.”
Soubry, who is 62 next month and was elected for Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire in 2010 after successful careers as a journalist and a barrister, has spent the past two years being attacked by members of her own party because of her stand on Brexit. “Behaviour that in normal times would be deemed unacceptable suddenly became acceptable,” she says. “These people are so driven by a desire to get out of the European Union that nothing and nobody is allowed to stop them. It’s a bit like the hardline Corbynistas: there is a cult following, they’re blind to everything else, it’s all about Brexit. They’re very organised, they exist at all levels within the party, it’s their life’s work, and they have an absolute commitment that clouds their judgment.”
Given that she believes the cultists of the ERG now largely determine Tory policy, why is she still in the party? “I’m not giving in to these people,” she says. “We’ve got all these Ukip infiltrators now and you’ve got to stay and fight them. You have to be true to what you believe in. The Labour party is a lost cause for anybody who is moderate and sensible and believes in that left-of-centre view of life. But my party is not quite lost yet and I believe there is a good chance it will return to sanity.”
She may think her party can be saved, but she doubts whether May will be the one to save it. “I think she will be ousted and we will get a leader from the right, supported by some of these people who have joined the party specifically to get rid of her,” she says. If that leader were Johnson, she would leave the party and sit as an independent MP, she says. “If he becomes leader, then I’m off,” she says. “I’m not serving in the same party as Boris Johnson. He’s proved that he’s incapable of holding high office, never mind being prime minister. He’s not true to what he believes in. It was almost a flick of a coin whether it was leave or remain. It was all for his own purposes. I have no time for him.”
With cultists taking over on right and left, does she see any scope for a new party of the centre, building on the way she has worked with anti-Brexit Labour MPs such as Chuka Umunna? “I know there are millions and millions of people out there who feel nobody represents them, but at the moment my focus is on Brexit and that’s all I’m interested in,” she says. “Those are conversations and debates for another time.”
On Brexit, she seems to veer between despair that the game is up and hope that a people’s vote will ride to the rescue. Either way, she says there will inevitably be an inquest into the manner in which the referendum was conducted and the hopelessly botched negotiation which followed. “You just know that in five or 10 years’ time there will be a huge inquiry and there will be outrage from people – statements in parliament and all the other things we’ve seen when we’ve had other inquiries. Whether people like me will still be alive, I don’t know, but the truth will come out.”
‘Brexit is the most terrible betrayal’;(top right) with Chuka Umunna on the people’s vote march in October