This article is from the May 2013 issue of Total Politics
‘Businesses open as usual,’ bellows a big yellow road sign. It squats among prowling JCBs and incipient construction sites preparing to build a new tramline, as you trundle up the high road to Anna Soubry’s constituency office in Beeston, Nottinghamshire.
“Fucking useless, those signs,” snipes a rambunctious Soubry, shooting an icy glance out of the window at the street below, lamenting how the building work closing the road for a year will threaten local businesses.
Her distinctive sharp, blue eyes are narrowed as she rat-a-tats out emails, presumably angry ones, on her iPad when I enter. It’s clear the almost military ‘challenge accepted’ attitude she takes to her new public health brief, which yanked her by the duck-egg pashmina into government in September 2012, also prevails in her constituency of Broxtowe, whose mission she took up in 2010.
Yet despite her barked expletives, no other high-vis banner could be more appropriate perched outside the public health minister’s Nottinghamshire HQ. It’s always business time here.
“I barely see my children, my partner gets pickled off because he doesn’t see me. I work seven days a week, 12 hours a day and I am not exaggerating. I do not have a day off,” she remarks matter-of-factly. I believe her. The convoluted email exchanges between the minister’s office and various other health department apparatchiks, agonising over her tangled diary, meant I’ve had to hop it to the constituency – or “the real world,” as Soubry wryly labels it.
Wearing a casual blazer, her feathery hair remarkably unfrazzled, she settles into a tranquil room set apart from the main office’s flurry of computers, campaign literature and a few health flyers that wouldn’t look out of place in a doctors’ surgery waiting room.
Still, there is a bottle of disinfectant hand gel on the table in this room. A little symbol of her government work truly pervading all areas of life, and not simply because of a brief that, by definition, requires close public engagement. Her remit is all the more intense as she upholds her belief in David Cameron and the party’s modernising wing. Detoxifying the party’s brand, and then reminding it to wash its hands.
One of her fellow Tory ministers tells me the prime minister is always keen to promote modernisers like Soubry, who have “an optimistic view of the world, unafraid of the future, and forward-looking rather than harking back to previous policies”, but points out that “the real opportunity for the 2010 intake to shine will be if we are a Conservative majority government in 2015. That’s going to open up a number of the early stars of that administration, and she’s among that group.”
However, the perception that Soubry is an unblinking Cameron loyalist is something she refutes: “My politics haven’t changed in 30 years, so it’s a bit odd to be seen as some sort of new, young – well, I like the idea of young! – moderniser. No. I don’t agree with everything that the prime minister might believe in.
“But he has transformed the party. He’s made it electable, in a way that it hadn’t been for over a decade. People sometimes forget that.”
From 2010-2012, she was health minister Simon Burns’ PPS, where she earned that ever dubious political accolade, a ‘one-to-watch’.
Burns talks fondly of his former PPS’s talent: “She fights her corner well for what she believes in. I assumed after a reasonably short time of working with her that she’d certainly be one of those people who was in the frame to benefit at a reshuffle, because she was very good and a good communicator.”
He also refers to her belief in the PM: “She totally signed up to the Cameron project.”
Although Soubry points out she’s only ever spoken to Cameron “a few times” and insists, “I’m not an inner-circle Cameroon by any means; I have no direct access to him, or anything,” she clearly believes she owes him her victory in Broxtowe, a tantalisingly slight win of 389 votes: “Of course I’m bloody conscious of how small my majority is; it makes me laugh.”
She also lashes out at the “doom and gloominess” in her own party about Cameron’s leadership: “When people talk about such-and-such a person as an alternative to Cameron, there is no vacancy… What we now need to do is stop people in the party engaging in quite a lot of twattery, and to accept that we’ve achieved a huge amount, and it’s all to play for.
“I came into politics to fight lefties… that’s where political fighting goes. The Tory Party must learn from its own history that when we fight each other, you can guarantee to lose.”
But despite this support, when offered her governmental position by Cameron in last year’s reshuffle, she recalls feeling sceptical. Including herself, the six previous public health ministers have all been female, and even in the cabinet room facing the PM, this did not escape her attention.
“I want my successor to be a man,” she commands. “I’ve noticed that every public health minister has been a woman, and it’s been seen as the soft, girly option. It’s bloody well not, it’s one of the most important jobs… To be quite frank, when the PM said to me, ‘I want you to do public health’, I thought, ‘Oh boss, I respect you so much, but I’m the only woman here and I get public health – I hope there’s no connection there.’
“Maybe I can make people realise that this is not a soft bloody girly option, it is a big serious job. I’m a huge fan of our prime minister… but I did sit there in the cabinet room and think, ‘Boss, you do know what you’ve just done? You’ve given public health to the girl again, except I’m not a girl, I’m a tough old bird’.”
Certainly, her allegiance to the PM does not stop her speaking out. She has barged into the headlines more than once, when branding the UK’s assisted suicide laws “ridiculous”, eating lunch at one’s desk “disgusting”, and linking class to obesity. Both her party and department have had to play down some of her statements, so does she ever feel her frankness constrained by her ministerial position?
“No. No. No. No,” she cries. If only for Cameron’s sake she would sometimes remain this lost for words… “What you see is what you get with me. I say what I believe in and nothing will change it.”
Soubry is 56, an unusual age for a new face who seems set to climb the party ranks, and many see this as a reason for her no-nonsense and opinionated approach.
“She’s not afraid to speak up, and I think perhaps because she’s slightly older, she knows that if she wants to make her mark she’s got to hurry up and make it,” says one Tory minister.
Her age, which she often refers to in asides (“I love good beer, I can’t drink very much of it because it makes me overweight and I’m a woman of a certain age…”), also means experience, and not just in the benefits of restrained ale-sipping. She already has two extra-political careers under her belt, one as a television presenter, and then later as a criminal barrister, having been called to the Bar in 1995.
And she certainly has the self-assured wallop of someone who has built their career in public speaking, whether to the audience of This Morning or a tense courtroom, pausing for effect, putting on voices and accents to illustrate an anecdote, and always devoid of jargon.
Chair of the health select committee Stephen Dorrell remarks that this background means she’s “qualified by experience”, making her “comfortable in her own skin”.
He also praises her outspoken nature: “She’s clearly a very vigorous minister, and is not frightened of controversy. She’s observing the Jo Grimond rule, which is that if you want to make a difference, you march resolutely towards the sound of gunfire. Well, she’s doing that.”
Usually an acerbic critic of politicians, the Daily Mail’s parliamentary sketchwriter, Quentin Letts, also lauds her former career: “Being a criminal law barrister, she’s seen a lot more of human nature than the rest of us. She’s looked into the eyes of pretty unpleasant people and called them liars. She’s brave.”
Indeed, Soubry talks casually of defending clients 70-80 per cent of whom were “heroin and crack addicts and/ or alcoholics… I was very much in the real world.”
Perhaps “defending the indefensible”, which is how she describes her life at the Bar, is a skill appropriately suited to party politics. Yet Soubry insists that outside experience is a common trait in the 2010 intake, rather than making her unusual.
“We’re not the stereotypical politicians of the past. Poor old Cameron went out and said, ‘I want people from all sorts of backgrounds’, and of course, that was brilliant – and now he’s paying the price because he can’t hurt them and whip them.
“It probably causes the whips so many headaches; they can’t hit the button that says, ‘You’ll never be a PPS’ because you say, ‘Yeah, like I’m crying’. I’m coming in from a third fucking career, so I want to do a particular job because I believe in this.
“There’s this stereotyping that if you’re a politician, you are ruthlessly ambitious. Bollocks, it’s not true. I came into this because I believe that the Conservative Party has the solutions to the problems that we face.”
Without acknowledging it, Soubry is actually atypical of the current governmental cohort because of her background. When growing up, the Hartland Grammar School in Nottinghamshire she attended became a “forced comprehensive”, with the catchment area including villages on the outskirts of the old mining town of Worksop, as well as “an area of town where a lot of the poorer mining community lived”.
She recalls the resulting school as “really rough… We were having lessons in the corridors for about three, four years before they built the actual facilities.
“So it was all fun and games,” she quips in one of her many pleasingly incongruous Malory Towers-esque turns of phrase that pepper her speech (“I used to knock about with a bunch of lads who played rugby” is another favourite, when discussing binge-drinking culture).
She continues: “I went to school with a significant number of children who came from some of the most deprived backgrounds in England. I knew and understood deprivation…”
And other typical Tories don’t?
Soubry is too shrewd to differentiate herself like that, quickly trotting out the Cameron-friendly mantra, “It doesn’t matter what your background is, it’s where you go.”
But she’s firmly aware of how her past has brought her to Parliament, revealing that “I got into politics in the first place because I wanted to make things better for everybody, especially people from those [deprived] backgrounds.” She does, however, display affection for her past career, at one point forlornly protesting, “My life before I was elected was extremely pleasant. In sharp contrast to what it is now.”
Presumably because “now” is all about improving the nation’s health, without appearing to dictate its lifestyle for fear of playing the dreaded “nanny” role.
The MP for Broxtowe is well aware of walking the high wire between responsibility and intrusion. She insists she’s now “convinced” of the government’s proposal for Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) on alcohol, which has recently been mysteriously muted – “it’s still official policy,” her piercing eyes widen in innocence – having hitherto been concerned about “ordinary lower-income responsible drinkers”.
Yet she still sees why such a measure could be ill-perceived: “Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely understand why it would be that someone at a senior level in government was saying, ‘Well, the political cost would be… [that] it looks like a step too far, it looks too much of a nanny state’.
“You have to get the balance right, especially with public health, so that you take the measures that benefit the public’s health, but without causing people to resent you so that you actually don’t cure the ill that you seek to cure.”
Surely there are some cantankerous Conservatives, particularly in the backbenches, whose kneejerk reaction is to see the entire public health brief as nannying, particularly if Soubry slams our eating habits publicly and calls for a ban on smoking in cars when children are passengers.
“No, it’s not as simple as that. I have colleagues in the parliamentary party who would strongly deny they’re on the right of the party, but who are also not in favour of MUP. It’s about proportionality and it’s about balance.”
But how to strike this balance? I infer from her ensuing tirade that she’d like to use her own strong, personal leadership to steer the public health remit away from ‘state interventionism’ jibes.
“It’s [public health policy] been seen as girly, nanny stuff,” she immediately launches into a high-pitched, saccharine agony aunt voice: “Oh, do eat your five a day! What’s your weight? Don’t drink too much. Do you care about this, that or the other?
“I will never give any quote advising people on what they should or shouldn’t eat, drink, smoke, anything… the idea that anyone is going to listen to me giving advice on salt is ludicrous. That’s the job of health professionals… [they’ve] got the credibility, I’m a politician, I have no credibility.”
Still, she is forthright about tackling how “it’s become acceptable to go out and drink yourself to oblivion”, a cultural shift she discusses at length, while suspiciously eyeing the students at the college opposite outside the window.
She also insists a “great British calorie challenge” is needed to counter “devastating” obesity, particularly in children, a third of whom are either overweight or obese at 11. This is why she urges local food businesses to sign up to a Responsibility Deal, from “the Italian restaurant, the pizza takeaway place and the chip shop”, to reduce their calorie-count, salt, and trans-fats. And it’s not just chippie customers who should beware – even in Parliament the salt sachets have been known to disappear on occasion.
And she’s not afraid to bring class into the debate, although admits the language used around this subject must be delicate. “If you come from the most deprived backgrounds – you can’t say ‘poor’ any more, for some reason,” she huffs – “the statistics show that you’re more likely to be overweight or obese than if you come from a less-deprived background.
“It’s deeply complicated. If you’re a mother, and you’ve got your own problems – say, your partner probably has either beaten you or has cleared off – you’re living a chaotic life in any event, you might have depression, or drink too much… Obviously it’s far less easy to prepare the sort of food that you would if you lived a more structured life.”
This ability to discuss emotive issues involving class and cultural values without flinching, unafraid to cause offence, is rather rare. It stands Soubry in good stead to make her mark on this government, even if, in 2015, her party can’t secure a majority – or “full-fat as opposed to semi-skimmed”, as she describes it, slipping amusingly from the food health message.
Suddenly, she leaps out of her seat. “I’ve got to go and see someone about building a bigger fence.” She roars: “That’s the life of a politician,” and off she darts, with barely time for a disinfected handshake. Business as usual.