I was 19 years old and attending my first Conservative conference – to be specific, the annual gathering of the Federation of Conservative Students, at Liverpool University in 1979. I had lurched out of bed, cursed a hangover, got dressed (more or less), somehow found the conference hall and was staring uncomprehendingly at a debate on labour relations. That I hadn’t bothered to rise earlier for elections to the FCS National Committee – dismissing them as obviously of incidental importance to the event – is a measure of my grasp at the time of student politics as a whole and the conference in particular.
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. “My father’s more right-wing than Genghis Khan,” she was yelling, through screams of abuse, fury and horror: “and even he doesn’t believe in banning the closed shop.”
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?* My excuse is that, as I say, I’d had a rather lot to drink the night before, and my judgement in these matters is unreliable. At any rate, this was my first sight of Anna Soubry, now MP for Broxtowe and said to be a rising star, that eternal curse on aspirant politicians.
She did the BBC’s Question Time recently (as has Louise Bagshawe), and Newsnight in the wake of Ken Clarke rape rage. Conservative MPs don’t appear on these programmes without a tip and a wink from High Command. So where has she been for the past 30 years? The answer says something about the recent history of the Conservative Party and may reveal a bit about its future, too. At roughly the time of her diplomatic exchanges with Tory students in Liverpool, she was a member of the National Union of Students’ executive. There is an apocryphal story of her waving a pair of knitting needles during a debate on abortion.
I can’t vouch for it. However, I will swear in court that she didn’t always go along with her fellow Executive members. Somewhere upstairs in a festering heap of papers, I still have her brief on a foreign affairs motion for debate: “Vietnam…El Salvador…Guatemala,” she had scribbled. “Don’t bother reading on: Aaronovitch wrote this crap.” (Today’s Times columnist was then the Communist President of the NUS.) But a point that should now be obvious holds none the less: as well as being forthright, she was then, by Conservative standards, very left-wing indeed – and times were changing.
Next year, she donned a sober dress for the FCS Chairman election, for which she was standing. By now I had worked out what really mattered at student conferences, and was up bright and early for the poll. Neither of these developments was enough to save her. She lost to Peter Young, doyen of the Adam Smith Institute, and the organisation continued down a leadership path that led, via your correspondent, to John Bercow. She hung around for a bit in the Party – I recall reading that at one conference she declared “Knickers to the TUC”, the kind of detail which my memory clings to – before vanishing from view.
The cause was not so much her dalliance with the SDP (she only returned to the Conservatives after the 2001 election defeat) as one of the two big reasons that help to explain why she has been largely missed by the media pack – namely, her roots. Soubry was raised in the East Midlands and has never really left it, working there as a barrister, journalist and TV presenter. I’m told that she asked one out-of-control interviewee: “Are you really going to hit me in front of five million viewers?”, a question that shows a certain presence of mind.
None of them, presumably, included Westminster’s lobby journalists and political commentators, who are notoriously London-centric, don’t follow regional TV, and tend to name-check the kind of MP they knew before he or she entered the Commons: political advisers to Ministers or Shadow Ministers, think-tank bosses, Commons researchers. (I plead guilty to all these faults.) This points to the second reason why Soubry’s not been spotted. Such people are usually in their twenties or thirties. They are therefore thought of as up-and-coming. Soubry is in her mid-50s.
Which may turn out to be a plus. My guess is that Cameron Towers feel that they don’t quite know her, in the sense that they know, say, Nicholas Boles or Matthew Hancock. But she’s a barrister, so she can master a brief. (Watch the Newsnight film: she knows her Justice stuff.) She’s been a TV presenter, so she won’t be thrown by studio audiences. And that she’s old enough to be the mother of teenage daughters gives her insights that younger politicians don’t usually have. Finally, and as I’ve pointed out before, being on the left of the party isn’t exactly a disadvantage under the current regime: she’s already a PPS.
So I’d be surprised if, come the eventual reshuffle, she isn’t made a junior Minister and left to see how she gets on. Or, rather than allow her to vanish in a Department, the powers-that-be could send her to carry on her media work as a campaigning Vice or Deputy Chairman at CCHQ. Her main political worry must be her seat. Last May, Labour had a majority of there only just over 2,000, and on paper it should have been won easily. Soubry scraped home by less than 400 votes. No doubt the resourceful presence of Nick Palmer, then the sitting MP, helps to explain the close shave.
* For anyone still reading, the answer to the question is no.