MPs may be renowned for pulling out all the stops to raise their profile and secure electoral victories, but his popularity among publicans goes far beyond the boundaries of his Leeds North West constituency.
Mulholland has created two identities over the course of his political career – one as a surviving Liberal Democrat member of parliament, and another as the fiercest of ‘pro-pub’ campaigners.
This latter identity is armed by a separate Twitter account to support his self-branded alter-ego: the ‘Pub Champion’, and a body of passionate licensees and supporters in the British Pub Confederation, which he chairs.
This identity is not so much about winning votes or making friends. Mulholland is viewed as a controversial figure to some, due to his straight-talking, aggressive brand of campaigning.
During exchanges on the pubs code in parliament, the then small business minister Anna Soubry was visibly exhausted by Mulholland’s relentless torrent of scrutiny, labelling his criticism of the appointment of pubs code adjudicator Paul Newby a ‘disgraceful set of slurs’.
But it’s this vehement opposition to anything he sees as a threat to licensees that defines his role in the industry – and the results are undeniable.
“It was pointed out to me at the last election I was the only person with more pubs in his constituency than in the previous election,” Mulholland proudly explains.
His passion for the industry runs deep. He’s even written a song – Last of England – bemoaning pub closures.
Support and protect
So where did this obsession with saving pubs, which culminated in the implementation of statutory legislation, begin?
“I’ve always liked and been interested in pubs, and when I got elected in 2005, I was keen to do what I could as an MP to support and protect pubs,” he says.
Mulholland has been a member of CAMRA for longer than any other organisation, but admits he didn’t really know the intricacies of a complicated industry when he was elected in 2005.
But after forming relationships with licensees in his constituency, the MP quickly became frustrated by what he says was their biggest complaint – the relationship with their pubco.
“I became aware of pub closures, the churn and continual ‘To Let’ boards that became such a feature of towns like Otley. You start to question why it is happening,” he says.
“We formed Otley Pub Club in 2009, largely because we had just lost a great pub. A developer bought it and ran it for two years, then sold it on to another developer, who planned to turn it into flats, for a £1m profit. We couldn’t face that happening again.”
But it was a coincidental meeting that sparked the beginning of perhaps his most significant involvement in the industry to date: the creation of the pubs code.
Campaigners at the Fair Pint for Your Local group had organised to meet now leader of the Lib Dems Tim Farron in 2007, who still shares an office with Mulholland.
“I said after the meeting ‘I know a bit about this, I know what the pubcos are up to, do you mind if I assist?’”
Mulholland then helped the campaigners rewrite an Early Day Motion (EDM) to parliament that questioned whether pub companies had ignored recommendations given by a select committee in 2004.
And a fire was ignited in his belly when the publication of the EDM was followed by a letter from a senior pubco figure.
'You've made a big mistake'
“It was a really rude, unpleasant letter saying ‘how dare I raise this issue’, even though what I was asking for was quite moderate,” Mulholland claims. “I thought ‘who the hell are you? You have just made a big mistake’.
“I’m not someone who responds well to that kind of approach, and I thought to myself ‘you are going to regret that’. And I would certainly like to think I delivered.”
And who could argue otherwise, after the pubs code came into force on 21 July – legislation that is intended to bring more balance to the tenanted and leased sector.
Soon after receiving the letter, Mulholland sat on a community pubs enquiry panel, and was astonished to hear no questions about difficulties of the beer tie.
He went on to set up the All-Party Parliamentary Save the Pub Group, and was a key voice in the debate as select committees investigating the issue got under way.
“In 2009, the tie was finally looked in to. It was very much on the political agenda by then, and the lobbying battle had begun,” Mulholland recalls.
“It was a big change having Save the Pub – a group of outspoken licensees having that platform and being able to speak in a more direct way. Before that, it had all be very cosy and lovely: ‘Don’t we love British beer and aren’t pubs marvellous?’”
Mulholland has never been one to tiptoe around his frustration with pubcos, and claims the recently formed British Pub Confederation has been in touch with many licensees who are claiming pubcos are trying to circumvent the controversial market rent-only (MRO) option.
“They’re still doing everything they can. The British Pub Confederation is getting cases of [pubcos attempting] different ways to avoid it and some licensees are falling for it,” he continues.
“There’s a very short window in which you’re allowed to trigger it and clearly the pubcos aren’t flagging that up to people.”
Despite his ground-breaking victory over the pubs code, Mulholland is not prepared to let his pro-pub persona slip quietly into the sunset. So what’s next on the agenda?
He has fought long for removing permitted development rights for pubs, meaning a developer would need to apply to the local council to change the use of a building.
“We have to campaign harder for the very simple change. The current system is absolute nonsense. It’s a scandal,” he argues.
The current set-up means a pub can be valued far below the same building’s value were it sold as flats, and developers have paid well over the odds for properties with intentions to change their use, he explains.
And the movement to remove permitted development rights, which earlier this year Mulholland raised in parliament, is gaining momentum, as Wandsworth Council last month became the first to remove the right at all of its 120 pubs.
“The only way a community can have a say in a pub is to get an ACV (asset of community value listing), and that’s wrong. There are going to be far more ACVs than there need to be,” Mulholland adds.
“The Government likes to have a localism flagged waved, but can’t be taken seriously if it’s going to allow pubs to be changed to a supermarket and the community has no say.”
A recent bid by Mulholland to list all pubs in Otley as ACVs was “just to make a point”, and he admits it’s simply the least worst option to protect his constituency’s pubs. He suggests scrapping them and replacing them with so-called ‘super-ACVs’.
“It would give a proper right to buy, and an offer would have to be accepted,” he says. “If the independently assessed value was £300,000, then it would have to be accepted.
"The offer would be for the building’s value as a pub, not as a property. It would apply to anybody, not just the community, including smaller pubcos and breweries,” he adds.
For an industry that will inevitably face more challenges over the coming years, one thing’s for sure – the Pub Champion will be ready to fly out of licensees’ corner swinging hard.