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8 September 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 12:10pm

Anna Soubry: the Tory who loves immigration

The MP and former minister on the pro-immigration case, her concern about Theresa May's migration policy, and why she is better at holding the government to account than Jeremy Corbyn and Labour.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Anyone unconvinced that there is an emotional case for remaining in the EU should meet Anna Soubry. The former Tory minister, who was business minister under David Cameron but declined to join Theresa May’s government, has a passion for the European project. She is furious about the Brexit vote.

During the first pro-EU rally in London following the vote to leave, she gave an impromptu – almost tearful – speech, in which she described how her two grown-up daughters and 83-year-old mother had wept at the outcome (her daughters have since insisted they didn’t shed a tear). Her fellow Conservative MP Nadine Dorries even accused her of being “inebriated” at the time, and later had to apologise.

Soubry has also clashed with high-profile Brexiteers. In her idiosyncratic potty-mouthed-but-prim style, she called Nigel Farage a man who “looks like somebody has put their finger up his bottom and he really rather likes it”. She questioned Boris Johnson’s pro-Leave stance, accusing him of putting his “leadership ambitions” ahead of Britain’s future.

Sitting in her constituency office on the drizzly Beeston High Road in her suburban Nottinghamshire constituency of Broxtowe, she is still angry, more than two months after the referendum. Hammering away at her iPad and cradling a persistently buzzing phone, she is plotting her new life as a backbencher on the last working day of the summer recess. Influencing Brexit negotiations is high on her agenda.

Soubry is a founding member of the cross-party Open Britain, a group campaigning for a Remain-friendly version of Brexit. Working with her are the Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb and Labour’s former shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden. They will push for access to the single market and free movement of labour (with tighter regulation of employment agencies).

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“[I want to] keep the pressure on the government to deliver in the best interests of the British people,” she says, hammering the table with her fist. “I’m not saying they won’t, but I think it’s going to be difficult.”

With her cut-glass accent, coral-coloured V-neck and pristinely coiffed hair (she used to be a television presenter), she appears every bit the classic Tory. But she had a dalliance with the SDP in her youth, and was the only Tory on the lefty National Union of Students executive committee in the 1970s, when she served alongside Trevor Phillips and David Aaronovitch.

“I marched with Trots, Maoists, all sorts of members of the left, on the defence of the ’67 Abortion Act, and the Anti-Nazi League, and there was never any problem with the fact that we were Tories,” she reminisces.

Now the rhetoric has turned sour. “In the hotbed of student politics, it was never like [today]. I was never called ‘a Tory “c”’ or an ‘effing Tory’. It was never nasty.”

Her support for immigration also marks her out. Though the majority of Conservative MPs were pro-Remain, not as many were as keen to chat about the merits of migration.

Soubry reveals that Downing Street even stopped her doing interviews about immigration before the referendum. “They said, ‘No, we are not engaging in the immigration debate,’ and I couldn’t believe it,” she thunders. “And I wasn’t alone in being horrified.”

She believes her enthusiasm for immigration puts her ahead of some Labour MPs, too. “The irony is, on immigration, I’m probably more liberal than some of them [Labour MPs] are having to sound, because they are so worried that they don’t any longer represent – they think – the views of their traditional supporters. And I think many of them don’t.”

Nevertheless, she calls Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the opposition “desperate for democracy”, because “it’s left to the likes of me” to hold the government to account over the Brexit deal. “Could you imagine the field day that Yvette Cooper would be having at the moment?” she says.

Although Soubry backed Theresa May for the Tory leadership, and calls her “far too sensible” to allow the party to shift right, she is concerned about the future of migration policy. Especially given May’s record as home secretary.

“I didn’t agree with her views on immigration,” she admits. “That does worry me. Why have we got students in the immigration figures?” she wonders of a policy that May has repeatedly insisted upon. “I want to see more overseas students! We want to do trade with the rest of the world, so somebody’s suggesting we reduce the number of overseas students. This is the stuff of complete madness . . . I think we should abandon the [net migration] target [altogether].”

However, Soubry does have a tougher stance on migrants who break the law – perhaps born out of her 16 years as a criminal barrister. She calls for ordinary economic migrants (not refugees) who come to work in the UK to be deported if they are sent to prison.

“If you work here, from another country, and you live here lawfully, and you commit an offence that puts you in prison, I actually think you’ve given up your right to live here,” she says. “If you had a tenant in your house and they smashed it up, you wouldn’t have them back in again. And I think if you break the house rules so that you go to prison, you forfeit your right to remain in this country.”

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers