As much as our politicians may be suited to flitting between dubious partnerships to boost their profile, swerving awkward questions and kicking back in a second home in the sun, we’ve been lumbered with a month of bean counting, broken-record rhetoric and, ultimately, broken promises instead. Welcome to the race to become the next leader of the Conservative Party.
The remaining couple – Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt – have been contesting a series of ballots, hustings and the occasional debate since Theresa May announced plans to leave office – with the former’s blonde ambition widely tipped to win the day later this month.
Very much in keeping with brand Boris, Johnson – a 1/10 favourite to become the next leader of the Government with some bookmakers – has led a typically capricious campaign. The man who once dismissed allegations of an affair as “an inverted pyramid of piffle” attempted to use a verbal kicking on Glastonbury’s (uninverted) Pyramid Stage by grime artist Stormzy to hit the headlines – claiming the Banksy stab vest-clad star rapped “back Boris” – rather than “f**k Boris”.
Hunt’s campaign, on the other hand, has revolved around his track record in Government and as an entrepreneur – setting up education listings site Hotcourses in 1996 before eventually selling it for between £30m and £35m.
Secretary of State and MP for South West Surrey Hunt has never been absent on a vote relating to pub leases and in February 2016 voted in favour of establishing the office of the pubs code adjudicator.
However, in three previous parliamentary votes, he stood against requiring pubcos to offer tenants and leaseholders the market-rent-only (MRO) option, against a statutory code of practice for large pub companies and against pub companies offering tenants free-of-tie options.
What’s more, before becoming health secretary in 2012, Hunt was absent for a vote on introducing a smoking ban in pubs and private members’ clubs in October 2010.
As reported in September 2016, Hunt and Public Health England chief executive Duncan Selbie warned that pubs and other food and drink-serving outlets would be “shamed” into reducing the sugar content of their food, if necessary.
In addition, Hunt voted 12 times on the issue of higher taxes on alcoholic drinks between 2013 and 2017 voting eight times in favour of raising taxes and four times against.
Moreover, in 18 votes relating to a right to remain for EU nationals – accounting for more than one in ten of hospitality staff – already living in the UK since the Referendum on EU membership, Hunt has voted in favour once and against 13 times.
(Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office)
Vital to country and culture
Johnson-backing MP Laurence Robertson, the member for Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire and vice chair of the All-Parliamentary Pub Group, outlined plans to brief Boris on the historical importance of Britain’s pubs and the issues facing them “at some point soon”.
“There is a review of sorts into the pub code and hopefully that will throw up a few things,” he explained. “Pubs continue to struggle with low profits and when very long hours are having to be worked to earn very little, it is no wonder that pubs are still closing.
“Of course, tax is probably the biggest problem pubs face because of the inflated prices it causes. Whichever candidate is successful may need to look at this, because pubs are such an important part of our country and culture.”
Need for pub passion
But which leader help pubs in the face of a legislative maelstrom?
Despite Theresa May’s parting gift of a sector deal for tourism, UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls believes that the outgoing regime left a lot to be desired when it came to pub policies.
She reveals: “When we moved from the partnership of Cameron and Osborne to the duo of May and Hammond, we went from a Prime Minister and Chancellor combo that really understood pubs, to one that seemingly had little real affinity with them.
“The previous leadership understood the value, both economic and social, of pubs, but May and Hammond appeared much less au fait with the work we do and the kind of support we need.
“Whoever wins, it is hoped they have a greater passion for pubs and a desire to see us succeed.”
According to Nicholls, recruiting and retaining staff is a “major issue” for pubs as well as the wider hospitality sector that a new leader will need to address.
“Although the majority of our team members are home-grown, we do need access to non-UK workers post-Brexit if we are to grow,” she explained. “That means we need a future immigration system that is built around the economic needs of the country, rather than a politically driven one. Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have shown themselves to be relatively pragmatic on this issue on the past and during the leadership race.
“Brexit-related issues and recruitment aside, the chief concern for pubs has to be business rates. Ever-increasing rates have been an issue for years and have crippled many pubs. Despite pledges from the Conservative Party that they would tackle the issue, we are yet to see the full-scale reform we need. Jeremy Hunt has made some very promising statements – pledging a major overhaul to help boost struggling high streets.
“On the other hand, Boris Johnson publicly backed a points-based system that would favour higher skilled workers. This would cause problems for many businesses looking to recruit and pubs would not be immune.”
Shortly after being appointed foreign secretary in 2016, gaff-prone former Mayor of London and Brexit frontman Johnson was voted the politician most trusted to run a pub, with almost a fifth (22%) of those surveyed by YouGov on behalf of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) claiming they would trust him with their business.
Most of Johnson’s recent engagement with the on-trade occurred while London Mayor between May 2008 and May 2016. He has never been required to vote on demanding pub companies offer rent-only leases in parliament, for example, and has generally voted for higher taxes on alcoholic drinks while pledging to review ‘sin taxes’ such as sugar if he becomes PM.
And in a strategic plan, published in March 2015, Johnson pledged to help London’s 33 local authorities to protect valued pubs from being lost – representing the first time the role of the capital’s pubs was recognised in the London Plan. He also backed the ‘agent-of-change’ principle in an attempt to protect London’s live music venues.
While his mayoral successor Sadiq Khan introduced the 24-hour underground service, which transport authority London First estimated could increase the value of the capital’s economy to almost £30bn per year, Khan recognised that Johnson deserved credit for putting the Night Tube on track.
(Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office)
Plans to back pubs?
“It is good to see that both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have put the future of high streets as a priority and are committed to lowering the tax burden on business,” the British Beer & Pub Association’s Brigid Simmonds added.
“Reducing regulation seems to be high on their agenda too. Pubs are facing a range of issues, particularly on taxation, from one of the highest beer duty rates in the EU to unfair business rates. To support pubs, the new Prime Minister needs to cut beer duty and reform business rates to make them fairer for pubs.
“Pledges such as Jeremy Hunt’s to exempt some small businesses from rates are welcome, but given that pubs pay their business rates based on turnover, the definition of ‘small’ must be raised in our sector. We also need to stop penalising capital investment and introduce a moratorium on increased rates following investment.
“It is important the new PM is able to provide certainty regarding the future trading relationship with the EU as we approach the 31 October Brexit deadline and create greater flexibility to allow skilled chefs and those with softer skills to come and work in the UK.”
What do pub operators want?
Robertson, Nicholls and Simmonds all highlight a trade that is in need of TLC from the top brass.
Licensee Gary Murphy of Ye Olde Mitre Inne in Barnet, north London, explains this could come in the form of a shake-up of the Government’s framework for dealing with the trade.
“I would like to see the next Prime Minister appoint a credible pubs champion who understands how the individuality of our pubs brings together and builds communities,” he explained.
“The person should have dedicated responsibility and wide powers to stop the closures and homogenisation, protect the buildings and interiors, and deliver a fair deal and open market for consumers, all brewers and licensees.”
However, Emily Kolltveit of the Chandos Arms in Colindale, north London – winner of the Community Pub category at the 2017 Great British Pub Awards and a finalist in the Best Local category in 2019 – said her hopes for a new leader of the UK lies “firmly” outside the Conservative party.
“The Tories seem to be made up of a group of people who are over privileged, led by their own egos and have no understanding of the people and the country they serve,” she explained.
“My main agenda for the Chandos Arms is to work towards a greener pub. I am discussing fitting solar panels to the roof and exploring other ways of creating a more sustainable business that seeks to support the renewal of the environment, rather than continuing to undermine it.
“We are at a crucial moment in the history of the planet and the Government and big breweries need to have this at the forefront of their decision-making .”
Kolltveit, who joined a number of publicans in delivery the Long Live thee Local campaign’s petition to cut beer tax to No.10 Downing Street ahead of the Autumn Budget last year, added: “Whoever the next PM is should be seeking to preserve our community assets, our pubs, our libraries and our churches. When they are gone, they are gone for good and the impact on those who reply on these enterprises will be devastating.
“We have to understand that growth is not sustainable at the rate required by our capitalist system, the pressure put on pubs by high business rates, beer tax and rising rents is forcing more and more pubs to close and undermining the enthusiasm of those who labour to keep them afloat.
“The life of a publican is growing increasingly more difficult as drinking trends change and austerity starts to eat away at the financial security of our core clientele but the rewards of running a much-loved community pub are so much more than financial and this it what focuses us at the Chandos Arms and spurs us on to new heights.”
Can Boris be stopped?
At this stage, it seems as if only the mother of all gaffes will see Boris relinquish control of the leadership contest and the keys to No.10.
Across the five rounds of voting so far, Johnson has never fallen below the 114-vote mark while none of the other candidates have broken 80. His latest tally saw him notch 160 votes compared to Hunt’s 77, and 75 for environment secretary Michael Gove.
What’s more, the closest any rival has been to catching Johnson was the first round of voting – when he finished 71 votes ahead of second-placed Hunt.
In the first round of voting, the other nine candidates collectively polled only 85 more votes than Boris. However, in rounds four and five, Boris accrued more votes than all other remaining candidates combined, registering three more votes in round four, and round five revealing that even a coupling up of Gove and Hunt’s supporters would leave them eight short of Johnson.