For a woman who had left politics “in the early 1980s to get a life”, Anna Soubry is vitality personified. Now in her seventh decade, she nonetheless speaks with greater energy and urgency than politicians half her age. She has had “three careers”, first as a journalist, then as a barrister, before turning to politics as Conservative candidate for Gedling in 2005.
It is hard to dislike Soubry. She is receptive, engaging and generous with her time. As she speaks, her ideology appears uncomplicated: “I believe in a strong economy, I’m not a fan of big government, I put a lot of trust in individuals and I’m socially liberal”.
However, since the EU referendum, her status as a Conservative MP has been anything but uncomplicated. After the botched 2017 election campaign she called for Theresa May to “seriously consider her position” and has since voted against the government on the most important bills of this parliament.
Given a colleague of hers has claimed in the past week that she is “completely barking”, it seems reasonable to wonder what allegiance she still has to a party with whom she disagrees, by whom she is disliked and whose leader she doesn’t support. She wholeheartedly rejects this suggestion: she is still a Tory “in every respect, I just don’t like what we’re doing on Brexit”.
“It is strange that Ken Clarke and I are being portrayed as mutineers and devils, when we are still subscribing to mainstream Tory policy of 50 years. It’s very concerning.”
However, the depth of her conviction on the folly of Brexit means that she is something of a hero for Remainers, and the epitome of mutiny and treachery for Brexiteers. This is not a role from which she shies away, and she never hesitates to speak her mind.
For instance, she openly pronounces that her boss, Theresa May, “is wrong in trying to appease the 35 hard Brexiteers who want a no-deal Brexit” on the grounds that “we’ve got to get a deal that puts the economy at its heart”. Nevertheless, she fears that “the idea that we’re going to get a deal that’s as good as what we’ve got is for the fairies”.
Soubry recently called for the PM to stand up to 'hardline ideological Brexiteers'
She does, however, sympathise with the British people who, to her mind, “are just fed up with the whole darn thing”. It is for this reason that she is “not in favour of a second referendum”, believing it should only happen if there was a palpable shift of opinion in favour of remaining in the EU.
Nevertheless, she is scathing of the attempts of the Remain campaign in the first referendum: “It was a dreadful campaign. It refused to talk about immigration which was a terrible mistake and ‘Project Fear’ was also a ghastly mistake”. On the other hand, “‘Take Back Control’ was an outstanding slogan and then the Leave Campaign were prepared to just tell terrible lies on a bus. People have been horribly conned”.
This was compounded by the fact that “Corbyn’s efforts during the referendum were dreadful. He’s a Brexiteer for crying out loud and always has been”.
“The terrible three was Boris, Gove and Corbyn. You had this combination of Michael Gove, who was the brains of the campaign, you then had the populism of Boris, and you had the most atrocious fibbing”.
She is convinced of Corbyn’s insincerity on supporting Remain, but stops short of accusing her party leader of the same, instead labelling her a “reluctant Remainer. She supported it on the grounds of security, but actually as we all know it’s not about security, it’s about the economy”.
Despite describing the decision to call the referendum “a terrible mistake”, she doesn’t agree with Jeremy Paxman, who considers David Cameron the worst Prime Minister since Lord North. “Two things David Cameron did: he got a grip on the economy, and secondly he enabled people of the same sex to marry and the sky didn’t fall in. Terrific. You wonder now, ‘shit, did we ever not have that law?’”
She does, however, disparage many of her fellow MPs (in particular Boris Johnson who “has let himself down very badly” and John McDonnell, who is “a particularly unpleasant individual”), but she reserves her deepest contempt for the “Brexit bully boys in the media” who were guilty of “appalling behaviour” before, during and after the referendum.
It is natural that she takes particular exception here. After all, she sees a clear link between the way she is portrayed in some parts of the press and the thirteen death threats she has received since the referendum: “there is an absolute link, the language is often mirrored and the way that people would like us to die is also mirrored”. Is the press irresponsible? “Oh absolutely. They should bring people together, not whip up fervour, anger and strife”.
In particular, she fears that “politics has a problem with women”.
“I do worry about where we are. It’s ironic given we’re about to celebrate the centenary of women getting the vote, and I do wonder how much progress we’ve made”. She perhaps unsurprisingly lays most of the blame at the door of the Labour Party: “I get stuff from the left that is absolutely outrageous”.
The recent centenary of the Representation of the People Act has led many to reflect on women's progress in politics
Her biggest fear is that young women will be scared off politics because of the vitriol they are likely to receive: “Some women are thinking 'why would I want to do any of that, and have some keyboard warrior abuse me and throw shit at me?'”
For this reason, she welcomes the “amazing” #metoo campaign. She is cautious of the message being devalued, however, and hopes “it doesn’t become a bandwagon and a bit tokenistic. You do just wonder if it suddenly became uber-fashionable just to give you a slight bit of fame”.
Given the Weinstein revelations, the subsequent allegations of abuse in Westminster, the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, she might be forgiven for feeling a bit disheartened. Not so: “There is some hope. The EU has been strengthened by our departure and Macron saw off the ghastly Marine Le Pen”. Despite this, she admits that “there is no sign of a new third party” emerging in the UK in the mould of En Marche.
Talk returns to Mrs May, and the chances of her surviving the year. As ever, Soubry is clear in her convictions: “it would be deeply irresponsible to have a leadership campaign with months to go before the most important negotiations since the Second World War”.
Will she stay? “I’ve no idea. Anything could happen and nothing would surprise me”.
Were she to quit, however, Soubry knows precisely who would be waiting in the wings to take on the mantle: “Boris wants it. Rees-Mogg wants it. God help us.”
Does she want it? “No way. Nobody would vote for me!”
A Backbench report by Tom Mitchell