Last Friday the RT Hon Anna Soubry MP made the trek to Durham to address the Durham University Conservative Association in the afternoon and argue for the motion “This House regrets Brexit” at the Union Society in the evening. This was not the MP for Broxtowe’s first trip to our cold, windswept city, however, as she revealed her distaste for our (not so) beloved Student Union which she had spied on visiting her daughter when she was an undergraduate.
In between these two events I managed to catch up with Ms Soubry to discuss the state of conservatism, socialism and where the future of her Party lay. I began by looking back to the last election, asking whether she thought it was a lack of vision and values which lost it for the Conservatives.
“Absolutely…you’ve got to have vision. It is about values, and its also about how you then deliver them through policies and they’ve got to be rooted not in ideology, but, as you say, in those good common-sense values and principles that says “we tend to think that individuals know more than government…We don’t want some big heavy state, we do believe we’ve got to be financially, as a nation, secure”; you don’t overborrow, you don’t get yourself in to excessive debt, you try to live within your means and your responsible for other people’s money.”
Why, then, was the Labour manifesto so popular, particularly with the youth? “It was the aspirational vision and obviously it was a manifesto with lots of unicorns jumping out of it”, some of which, she cites tuition fees, were an obvious example of Labour running a clever campaign to appeal to the youth vote, despite “rowing back” on them after the election. She regretted the lack of debate on these points, that even “if you didn’t have tuition fees you still have to pay for the education, so who’s going to pay for it?”.
I pointed out how this might be a consequence of some people not associating the state with actual people. She agreed, “people talk about government money, its not government money its their bloody money.” Ms Soubry pointed out the Conservatives hadn’t had to fight an election against a Labour Party so left wing for so long that they had forgotten how to argue against socialism. She soberly reflected that if Labour realised how vulnerable many Tory seats were in the last election “they could have inflicted much more damage on us.”
I wanted to know if she thought the traditional working class in many northern constituencies, the type that voted leave and seem at a cultural distance from the young middle-class London socialists were potential Tory voters. Though agreeing, Anna revealed her typically one-nation conservative frame of mind, aiming rather for an appeal to all voters. She did observe, however, that “Labour has been hijacked not just by the hard left but also by the monied intelligentsia as well”, leaving “the less monied urbanites”, (apparently she doesn’t like to use “class”), without a political home.
Going forward for her party she asserted that the most popular Conservatives at the moment “speak with the head and the heart”.
“And that’s crucial?”
“I think that’s absolutely critical…even if they don’t agree with you, people like the fact you are passionate but also that you speak with honesty. People are fed up to the back teeth with politicians not being honest with them.”
I brought up Theresa May’s speech on the steps of Downing Street when she took office which went down well with Anna, but looking back, how much progress has actually been made? “Unfortunately, Brexit is so consuming that we are not seeing the sort of progress we should do on some of the big issues.” She was encouraged, though, by the announcement last Thursday on housing, “a great step forward on that promise to make sure there are more affordable homes available.”
Apart from housing, what are the other “great social injustices” Conservatives must address? Without hesitation she replied “social mobility”.
“How would you tackle that?”
“It has got to be education. One of the biggest things we need to do is improve the education attainment and the standards, the quality in large parts of our country…there are too many places where you are not getting the aspiration, the attainment that those young people deserve.” Anna believes we should have a greater capacity for technical education and apprenticeships alongside an improving intellectual rigour across our schools.
But in an increasingly globalised world, with all the challenges of cheaper labour internationally, Britain is becoming more and more service-orientated, with, as she had already pointed out, 80% of our economy invested in services. Where, then, will the jobs be for those with technical skills? “I think the biggest problem actually is automation” and since someone has to make these machines, Ms Soubry links her call for greater skill-based education with the higher-skilled jobs in making machines. She also pointed out how “services” also included things like painting and decorating, not simply financial services like I know I think of when I hear that word.
Though famous for her position on Brexit, it was refreshing to hear the staunch Remainer talk about something else, particularly when she had obviously thought on, at some length, the issues we discussed. It goes to show how politicians can be more rounded individuals than their media presence conveys. As I am writing this, by strange fortune, headlines are popping up about Ms Soubry’s threat to leave the Party if Brexiteers like Boris and Jacob Rees-Mogg takeover and alas my image of a compromising and balanced MP retreats once again.