The Sat­ur­day in­ter­view

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Peo­ple’s vote cam­paigner Anna Soubry,

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.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: ALI­CIA CAN­TER/ GUARDIAN; MIKE KEMP/GETTY IMAGES

‘Brexit is the most ter­ri­ble be­trayal’;(top right) with Chuka Umunna on the peo­ple’s vote march in Oc­to­ber

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