Government reshuffles are notorious for moving ministers just as they get to understand a sector. But Brandon Lewis, the community pubs minister, has managed to keep his portfolio for pubs through the latest round of political musical chairs. And why? “Because I am not giving it to anyone,” he says.
Lewis has earned much appreciation from the trade for his support for the sector within the corridors of power, but he did not set out to be a politician.
As a student he did a stint working in a pub called the Spencers Arms, “which is why I always remember that running a pub is bloody hard work,” he admits. “I started off wanting to be an airline pilot or a lawyer,” he says. He trained for the latter, qualifying as a barrister and then started his own consultancy and advised companies on commercial and company law.
However, it was not very long before he got involved in politics and at 26 he became active in the Conservative Party. “I was frustrated,” he says. “I thought we were in a good place economically, yet we were losing the election.
“I just wanted to be part of winning that back, to do what I could for things I believe in — freedom of choice, the free market, freedom of speech.”
In 1998, he stood as a councillor in Brentwood, Essex, or as he describes it, “succumbed” to the idea that it would not take up much time. By 1999 he started to consider standing as an MP and went on a weekend away to qualify as a candidate for the Conservative Party.
He says: “I was approved as a candidate and I got selected for Sherwood, Nottinghamshire, which was a safe Labour seat with a majority of about 18,000.
“It was great experience and I halved the majority. It was one of the biggest swings in the country.”
After the general election, the group in Brentford asked him to become leader and by 2003 he had taken overall control of the council. But the desire to become an MP remained strong.
“I didn’t stand in the 2005 election as my kids were very young, I was also developing a new business and I had just become leader of Brentwood. I took the view that I should see through the five-year plan and decided not to stand.
“In 2006 I got selected for Great Yarmouth and in 2010 the people of Great Yarmouth gave me the fabulous honour of being their MP.”
Promotion to a ministerial post did not take too long following a phone call from the prime minister in September 2012. “It wasn’t something I expected,” he admits.
The PM asked him to take on the remit of local government — a job for which he had strong experience through his time at Brentwood. And he took on the coveted role as community pubs minister as well.
“When I first came in the one thing I thought the industry was getting wrong was in spending too much time talking about how you save
the British pub.
“But I was quite firm with them that we need to start talking about how we celebrate the British pub. That change happened around Christmas 2012.”
More recently he took on the remit of the high street and opened up the Future High Streets Forum to include the pub sector and extended membership to British Beer & Pub Association chief executive Brigid Simmonds and Spirit chief executive Mike Tye.
He praises the industry for coming together to fight the case against the beer duty escalator.
“Every part of the industry came together, from the Campaign for Real Ale to the breweries, the pubcos and the publicans. It was a proper united approach and the success of that paid off.”
However, he acknowledges the problems that some licensees have had within the economic climate.
“I know there are publicans out there that have had a hard time — that is the same across any part of business. I think you will find the failure rate in pubs is the about the same as small businesses generally.
“It is a difficult industry as consumers’ tastes and trends are changing, and the pubs that succeed will be the ones that work out what their local consumers want and be able to work with that.”
But he firmly believes that the industry needs to build a positive story for the sector and has said on numerous occasions that his job is to champion the pub trade across Government — whether this is to highlight that pubs are an economic driver or to showcase the good work pubs do for their communities and local charities.
“There are fabulous stories around young people and young apprentices, employment and input into the local economy, and what the industry does for community causes — and not just money, but often in places where the pub is the local conduit, where the football team meets, for example. It’s where people come together,” he says.
“But often what gets forgotten is that it is a safe place for people to go and drink. A publican cannot serve someone who is drunk and it is not in the publican’s interest to have someone who is misbehaving in their pub.
“It is a good, safe environment for a family meal. But it is also a suitable environment for young people to have a drink with their friends in a responsible way.”
He believes that the Government has worked hard to help the industry. He highlights the end of the beer duty escalator, the latest business rates concessions and national insurance breaks. And believes that the delay in the possible implementation of the statutory code has “logic”.
He has also defended criticisms levelled against the policy of allowing pubs to be made assets of community value (ACV).
“An ACV is not in place to stop a pub that is not successful, not viable, not sustainable, from becoming something else. But there are some pubs out there that, for whatever reason, are not viable as a pub. I think we have the right balance. And the market needs to have the flexibility to move with that.
“I have very little sympathy for people that come up to me after the fact. ACVs have been around for a long time and people who are interested in their pub cannot say they are not aware of this option. If you value your local pub, whether you are the publican or a local drinker, go and get it protected.”
He admits that there is a difference between giving a community the chance to protect a valued asset and actually achieving that, but says: “Equally, it is not for Government to intervene in a free market.”
And is there any advice he would give a publican?
“When I am doing tours and visits to pubs in the mornings, as much as I love a great British pint of good quality beer, I can’t drink one at 10 o’clock in the morning. I would like a coffee,” he laughs.