"I am very grumpy at the moment," Anna Soubry tells me as I sit down to interview her in her small ministerial office deep in the bowels of the Houses of Parliament.
It’s an inauspicious start to our chat but the cause for her crankiness is obvious. Soubry was a strong campaigner for the UK to stay in the European Union – a high-profile ‘Remainer’ who is still, literally, shaking her head in disbelief that the British public voted to leave.
As Minister for Small Business, Soubry is clear that their decision will lead to some uncertain times and difficult decisions ahead. “It’s going to be tough for small business owners,” she admits.
“The British people have made their decision and it will unfold in the future. For us in Government, we now need some political stability. We need a new Prime Minister and strong Government with credible leadership. And then we have to negotiate the best deal for Britain.”
The outcome of the Conservative leadership contest will be known well before the full implications of the Brexit vote. Soubry is keen to emphasise that as the daughter of a garage owner, she knows first-hand about the challenges of running your own business and the importance of a stable economy.
To that end, Soubry and her boss, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills Sajid Javid, have held a series of meetings with business leaders designed to reassure financial markets and reinforce the message that Britain is “open for business”.
For employers in the hospitality sector, she says, it’s about making a positive case for the immigration that pubs, bars and other licensed retailers rely so heavily on. “Migrant workers positively contribute to our country economically, socially and culturally and, as politicians, we need to get that message across.”
With pressure on margins already intense, business groups have expressed concern about the impact a relatively small dip in consumer spending would have on the eating and drinking-out market. Soubry says she “hopes” the UK doesn’t fall into another recession because of Brexit fallout and is mindful of the damage it can cause to the sector.
“A potential drop in consumer disposable income is a worry because while people may still spend, they will spend less in the pub and not have a meal, or stay at home rather than go out to eat and drink. I hope that we don’t have a recession and we will do everything we can to avoid it,” she says.
Speaking her mind
While the majority of today’s politicians are ultra-careful with their words, Soubry has a reputation for speaking her mind. In 2013, she remarked on TV that the then UKIP leader Nigel Farage looked “like somebody has put their finger up his bottom and he really rather likes it”. She later apologised, but the comment identified her as someone not afraid to ruffle a few feathers.
This bluntness comes to the fore when we discuss the statutory pubs code, which she has been responsible for guiding through parliament. She admits she’s received some social media abuse from anti-pubco campaigners because of the delay to the code being implemented, and for her decision to appoint ex-Fleurets director Paul Newby as the new pubs code adjudicator.
“I don’t like the polarisation in the sector and I really don’t like people sending me offensive tweets. It’s not acceptable when someone is trying to do the right thing that people send them offensive messages,” she says.
“Yes [the issue] might arouse a lot of passion but you don’t need to be rude to people or use foul language. I’m a campaigning MP, I fought a marginal seat, and one thing you don’t do is alienate people you’re trying to win round by being abusive toward them. I’ve had some horrible messages, things that people wouldn’t dare say to my face. It doesn’t advance their argument.”
She bridles when I mention the controversy surrounding Newby’s (left) appointment as adjudicator and accusations that he has a conflict of interest.
“To have people abuse me, criticise my decision and say I don’t know what I’m doing like I’m some dumb blonde is outrageous. I genuinely believe that Paul Newby is the right person for the job. We had some very good candidates and he shone out.
“He’s represented both tenants and pub companies. Some people don’t seem to understand that you can be a professional and do a professional job by representing people to the best of your ability. I’ve represented paedophiles [as a defence barrister], that doesn’t mean to say I support them. Paul knows this industry inside out, he’s got real experience,” Soubry says.
Newby has also received abusive letters since starting in his new role earlier this year, which clearly angers the minister. “How do we think we can attract people with the right skills and abilities to these types of jobs if they are then hounded in this way?”
She takes a slightly more conciliatory tone when asked about the drafting errors that led to the ongoing delay in the code’s implementation.
“I absolutely want to get it in place before the end of this parliamentary session. I can’t tell you how hard people have worked to make the changes we needed for the code to be effective. It’s absolutely critical that we got that right and it was right for us to pull back and delay. I’m really sorry that it wasn’t done when it was supposed to – but we had no alternative.”
Forthright and passionate
For those tenant campaigners calling for the code to be retrospective and apply from its original implementation date – 26 May – there will only be disappointment. “We can’t do that,” she says.
Soubry strikes me as the kind of politician that this country desperately needs more of. Strong in her beliefs, forthright and passionate, but likeable to the point you wouldn’t mind propping up the bar with her, perhaps born of the fact she had a successful career outside of politics.
She claims to be a big pub fan (which politician doesn’t?) and name checks several in her constituency of Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire, and insists she does her bit to support the local on-trade when in her home town.
“I’ve enjoyed going to pubs all my life and continue to do so. What I like is the mix of people you get in them. I’m a normal human being, not a career politician. The vast majority of my friends are not involved in politics so when we meet up, we don’t talk politics in the pub.”
In terms of help for licensees, she insists the Government is listening when it comes to costs such as the national living wage and business rates, without making any firm policy commitments.
And she’ll be keeping a close eye on the trade as the pubs code beds in and the adjudicator begins work.
“All the great pubs I know are great pubs primarily because of the licensee behind the bar who is committed to the business. They shouldn’t be held back in any way by the company that owns that pub,” Soubry says.
“What I want is a change of culture and for fairness to prevail. I want tenants to know they can get on and run their pubs, make some money for themselves and provide a great service to their customers. My goal is that we have a fair and just system, and that the pub sector is functioning properly.”