Anna Soubry is the leader of the Left of the Tory Party. Until Jacob Rees-Mogg made this observation while I was researching this profile, the thought had not quite occurred to me.
But who else is there? Her hero and fellow Nottingham MP, Ken Clarke, is an elder statesman, still capable of intervening with tremendous éclat, but not expected to return to high office.
In the next generation, Dominic Grieve and Damian Green are distinguished figures, who speak with authority on their chosen subjects. But Soubry is the person who possesses, like Clarke, the ability to engage with the wider public, and a pugnacious joy in swinging punches at political opponents, including some who happen to belong to the same party.
It is this reckless delight in fighting her corner which makes her such an arresting figure to watch. At the end of 2013, when she said in a scene-stealing moment on the Andrew Marr Show that Nigel Farage looks “like somebody has put their finger up his bottom and he really rather likes it”, people began to take notice of her.
She had already confronted the UKIP leader on Question Time, where as the New Statesman reported:
Rather than pandering to Farage, as most Conservatives would do, she said: “You talk about facts – in my constituency your party put out a leaflet saying 29 million people from Romania and Bulgaria were going to flood into our country. Well, the population is only 27-and-a-half million of the two of them.
“You do not talk facts, you talk prejudice. That’s what you talk, and you scaremonger and you put fear in people’s hearts.
“Look, times are tough. We know that. But when times are tough, there’s a danger and history tells us when things are not good, you turn to the stranger and you blame them. And you shouldn’t. That is wrong. And I’m proud of our country’s history and I’m proud that people come here.”
Here is a liberal Conservative who is out and proud where others would consider it more prudent to downplay their loathing of people like Farage.
What made her like this? Her willingness to speak her mind must come in part from not being part of the modish, metropolitan world, educated for the most part at Oxbridge and at fee-paying schools, which is uneasily aware that its cultural assumptions – pro-EU, pro-immigrant – are not necessarily shared by Middle England.
Soubry is a robustly provincial figure. Her father ran garages, but went bust when she was 11, while her mother worked for 40 years as a radiographer in the NHS. Anna passed the 11-plus and went to Hartland Grammar School in Worksop, which as she recounted in the Nottingham Post
“was a rough and tough school. After I left things were so bad there were areas of the school staff wouldn’t go because they would get beaten up, and the police were called because of the number of stabbings. Two people I was at school with ended up becoming murderers.
A couple of years after I joined it became Hartland Comprehensive, and by the time I left it was reckoned to be one of the worst schools in Notts. But they were some of the happiest days of my life; I can’t stress enough how much of a good time I had there. I look back on it with great fondness’”.
Already she enjoyed getting into a row. Our next glimpse of her confirms this. She read law at Birmingham University, and in 1979, when she was 22, attended a conference held by the Federation of Conservative Students in Liverpool, where the 19-year-old Paul Goodman, who was badly hung over, witnessed her performance:
“The debate droned on. My eyelids drooped downwards. Then what appeared to be a small nuclear explosion took place in the general vicinity of the microphone. A young woman wearing skintight jeans was addressing what Sir Edward Boyle once called the only intelligent audience in the Conservative Party. My eyelids lifted up. She was shouting vigorously. The conference was shouting back…
I was transfixed. Less by the quality of the argument (if that’s the right way of describing what was taking place) than by the gorgeous pouting allure of the speaker. To my youthful imagination, her primal rage suggested Helen of Troy getting down and dirty. How had she managed to get those jeans on? Would I be able to get them off?”
The answer to the second of these questions turned out to be “No”, as he admitted on recalling the occasion in a piece for ConHome published in 2011. But Soubry, as he realised, was a woman to watch.
She could not, however, be watched in London. For after becoming the only Conservative on the executive of the National Union of Students, her first career was as a presenter of regional television programmes in Scotland and the Midlands, after which she qualified as a barrister and practised at the criminal bar in Nottingham.
She also got married a couple of times, and had two beloved daughters who are now grown up. In an interview with The Times, she touched on her parenting style:
“I was the generation that just got on and did it. I had a local girl looking after my daughters at home so I was never the frazzled woman saying, ‘I have to go now to pick up the kids’. I never did the cupcake bollocks.”
Soubry did not, however, get on and do politics during these years, becoming active in the Party again only after David Cameron became leader. (She dismisses claims of once having joined the SDP as “a terrible lie that is put about” .) In 2005 she fought and lost Gedling, and in 2010 just won Broxtowe, which stretches from the western suburbs of Nottingham to the Derbyshire border.
As one of her fellow Tory MPs puts it, she is “no soft touch, but a compassionate Tory”. Soubry herself says:
“I went to school with very poor people and their lives had just got worse. They may have had the money for nice trainers but they had no aspirations. There were whole families in my area where for four generations no one had worked and lived shitty lives. It enraged me.”
On arriving at Westminster in her early fifties, her experience as a journalist and a lawyer stood her in good stead. She understood television and could master a brief.
She also enjoyed the hooligan possibilities of the Commons Chamber, where she sat with “the rough trade” – people like Simon Burns – and heckled Ed Miliband, while annoying the Speaker. Quite soon she gained promotion, first to a junior ministerial post at Health, then to the Ministry of Defence, and now to Business, where she is allowed to attend Cabinet.
There is a kind of Conservative right-winger who finds her unbelievably irritating: an attention-seeking sycophant who catches David Cameron’s eye in the House and responds to him “like a nodding dog in the back of a Hillman Imp”. They hate and despise her, and she hates and despises them back.
She is as unwilling to woo the Right as Clarke was. Many colleagues were horrified at her disloyal treatment of Andrew Mitchell, on air, when he had to resign after his altercation at the gates of Downing Street.
On another occasion, she refused to take seriously the worry of some Conservatives that military chapels might be obliged to permit gay weddings. As the Archbishop Cranmer blog reported,
This debate is interesting for the way that the Ministry of Defence Minister Anna Soubry treats those of a Christian conscience, in this case Sir Edward Leigh (Roman Catholic) and Sir Gerald Howarth (Church of England), with utter contempt and rudeness. Those who witnessed the exchange were shocked and appalled at the Minister’s arrogance.
But her admirers outnumber her detractors. Even if they do not agree with her opinions, they like the way she fights her corner, whether at the Dispatch Box or on television. And although she is capable of getting things completely wrong – in her anxiety to keep us in the EU, she claimed our trade with Europe would drop to “almost absolutely zero” if we were to leave – she is also capable of apologising for her errors, at least if this does not mean having to mollify some right-wing backwoodsman.
And she still comes to have a drink in the Smoking Room before a vote, whereas “with a hell of a lot of ministers, you never see them again”. Her partner, Neil Davidson, is a businessman: “He’s a nice man, and if he can handle Anna he can handle anything.”
Whatever the referendum result, it is more than likely that the next leader will come from the Brexit wing of the party, and that in order to demonstrate balance, he or she will find it expedient to offer Soubry a Cabinet post.