The pantomime villain was Mulholland – chair of the Save the Pub Group and self-styled Pub Champion - who took part in a panel debate to discuss the impact of the market rent only-option (MRO) and the new pubs code.
I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a more confrontational and belligerent performance by a speaker at an event before. All that was missing was the evil laugh and some audience booing.
Maybe it was the environment Mulholland found himself in. The architect of the controversial MRO clause and last year’s spectacular parliamentary victory stepped into the lion’s den of pubco chiefs and industry bigwigs. Perhaps he felt that attack was the best form of defence.
I’m not so sure. Throughout the day we heard from senior figures from a number of tenanted pubcos, as well as others likely to be impacted the new legislation, about the need to move forward in the spirit of partnership and conciliation; the need for all sides to come together to make the pubs code the very best it can be, workable for both tenants and landlords.
Mistakes of the past were acknowledged, regret was expressed at how the sector had ended up at this point, but mostly there was a sense of determination to focus on the future and help build a thriving pubs sector.
Mulholland’s performance – and it was a performance worthy of the London stage – blew all that out the water in a matter of minutes. While I wasn’t exactly expecting deference, I thought he might at least acknowledge the need to start a new chapter, perhaps crow about his victory a little and then look forward.
Alas, no. Instead he went on the attack – lambasting his fellow panellists and audience members alike. He was particularly rude to BBPA chief executive Brigid Simmonds. It’s fair to say that they won’t be on each other’s Christmas card list following the exchanges.
Panellists James Staughton, representing the family brewers, and Punch’s Andy Slee also felt the lash of his tongue. To their credit they refused to rise to the bait. Even the team at M&C Allegra, who hosted the event, were criticised for not inviting enough tenants and daring to offer “lavish food”. I thought the food was half-decent at best.
Delegates who began watching the debate in respectful silence soon began shifting awkwardly in their seats and the murmurs of discontent grew louder as Mulholland dominated proceedings and continually interrupted his fellow contributors.
When pushed for an answer by one delegate on a specific point about the implications for tenants of the rise of managed houses and fewer pubs being available under longer-term agreements, Mulholland became evasive and turned on his questioner, labelling him “deluded”. A ludicrous comment given the man posing the question has almost 20 years’ experience in the sector dealing with M&A activity.
It was if there was a creeping realisation that his legacy to the pub trade might not be so glorious after all; that rather than free tenants from the shackles of pubco chains, the new legislation will shut off the low-cost entry point, chill investment and lead to further reduction in pub numbers.
It’s an uncomfortable prospect that Mulholland refuses to even contemplate.
In my dealings with Mulholland I’ve found him to be a passionate and personable individual. He is a formidable campaigner and the PMA congratulated whole-heartedly on his stunning parliamentary victory last year. But he overstepped the mark here.
He also did himself no favours by making an exit once the debate had concluded that much-maligned rugby world cup referee Craig Joubert would have been proud of. He was happy to leave the scene of the crime as quickly as possible.
Earlier in the day, during questions in the House of Commons, Mulholland told small business minister Anna Soubry that “she didn’t know what she was talking about” when it came to the pubs code. Unfortunately he brought that same aggressive attitude with him to the summit.
As Soubry responded in the Commons, perhaps the new style of politics has not quite yet reached the Lib Dem benches. Let’s hope it does soon; progress will be difficult to achieve otherwise.