Just over a year ago, Anna Soubry became the MP for Broxtowe, ousting Dr Nick Palmer after thirteen years of Labour control. The swing was slender and well below the national average: after two recounts it was settled that she had won by just 389 votes, a 0.7% greater share than the incumbent.
It’s been a very odd year for her, and for Broxtowe politics as a whole, so trying to summarise it all in one blog post is nigh on impossible. I’ve been soliciting views from all hues of the political spectrum to try and get a truly representative feel of how she’s done, as well as trawling my own archives. She’s been stewing in my brain for the past month, so it’s finally time to serve it up before I start to scare myself.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time ensuring that all facts within are correct, but errors can happen, even to me, so please let me know if something is so glaring it
could get me sued misrepresents.
I’m not naive enough to believe everything that a politician says when begging for our vote: look at New Labour’s ‘Ethical Foreign Policy’; Conservatives ‘We will protect the NHS’; and the Lib Dems tuition fees debacle. Politicians know they have to seduce us thoroughly, then, like a cruel lover, leave us feeling a bit daft and used for trusting them. It’s always been this way, and although there have been honourable exceptions in history, Machiavelli still hums in the background at ever call to vote.
Anna’s promises? Two she made with striking conviction were ‘ I will be Broxtowe’s voice in Westminster, not Westminster’s voice in Broxtowe’. The second ‘I will move into the constituency when I am elected.
The first was rather unimpressive. It implied that Palmer didn’t represent Broxtowe well, and was a purely Westminster MP. As numerous testaments in the last year show, Palmer’s popularity here was greatly bolstered by his willingness to respond to emails, letters and phone calls, even if they held views diametrically opposed to his own. I first sent him an email several years ago at 1am, and was rather surprised to find a reply, sent at 3am, waiting in my inbox. I will deal with Soubry’s response time later. But to claim that she was all about localism, especially when her mentor was Ken Clarke -whose wife claims single-occupancy rate on their property in Rushcliffe, such is his time spent in London-was a bit silly. But is it true?
On balance, no. She has found a niche in the Commons through her experience at the bar, and a great chunk of her Hansard entries deal with tricky legal issues rather than local ones. I recently received an exasperated phone call from John McGrath, Stapleford Councillor, who had lobbied her recently to investigate parking issues in St. Apleford. She got quite angry at this, as McGrath is Labour, and this was ‘not an issue for the MP’: she tried to delegate the issue to the County Council, in the form of Cllr. Richard Jackson. When Cllr. McGrath complained that he had not received an adequate response from Jackson for over a year, she lost her temper and claimed that she was’ Sick and tired of having my time, and my office’s time, wasted by (Cllr. Steve) Barber, Palmer and Labour’.
It doesn’t surprise me much. As I shall attempt to explain later, Soubry’s light-touch representation of Broxtowe might be a perfectly clever strategy. Let’s look at the other claim, that she would move to Broxtowe should she gain power. True?
According to a trusty source, no. I do know she looked at a place in Bramcote, but decided against it. Her property in Mapperley has an indoor heated swimming pool, so I can understand her reluctance to leave it, even if Bramcote baths is just across the dual carriageway. I’m not absolutely against politicians living away from their stomping ground: most Councillors I know live outside their wards; but if you aren’t going to fulfil it, expect to be criticised for promising it. Anna, there is still time. I’ve just moved out of my shared-house, so my former room is free. £265 all in, with TWO toilets (albeit the outside one lacks plumbing). Give my landlord a call.
This is where I get most feedback from readers. How well does Anna respond to queries?
Pretty poorly, judging by the correspondence I receive. Emails get ignored, letters are left without reply and telephone calls unanswered. Unverified, but frequent comments on Beestonia complain that she seems to not want to get involved in anything that smacks of deviating from the Tory line. I have contacted her a few times, but I assume she thinks I’m part of an alleged leftish ‘conspiracy’ to over-run her office with work. Her first months in power were full of marginally paranoid complaints that she was being overworked by email and letter writing campaigns, and it was getting in the way of her ‘real work’. After much complaint in the letter pages of the Nottingham Post and the Beeston Express she stopped this, yet still I received a steady flow of correspondence of frustrated constituents annoyed with her ignoring them. This attitude hurt her two ways. First, Palmer was famous for his prompt and courteous replies to queries, often sent at bizarre times of the day. Even if he disagreed with a point, he was careful to explain why he wouldn’t be voting the way you wanted him to. This was good representation, and over the thirteen years he was MP, something of a trademark. Soubry therefore had a high standard to live up to, so it may be understandable that taking over Palmer’s caseload overwhelmed her somewhat. If it is proved to be true, as many people suggest to me, that she ignores anything that may appear to be from a non-Conservative constituent, I can’t see any chance of her wafer-thin majority bulking up.
However, credit where it’s due. A few months ago I conducted an experiment, where three friends sent identical handwritten letters to the respective MPs in Broxtowe (Soubry), Erewash (Jessica Lee, Conservative) and Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood, Labour). We chose the topic of media plurality in respect to the proposed takeover of BSkyB by Murdoch, as this was non-geographic and not immediately party-political. All three letters were posted to the constituency offices at exactly the same time, and I do admit to being moderately surprised by the results.
Soubry replied first, and while the letter was short and uncommitted, it was still signed by Anna herself. Second was Jessica Lee, with a more thorough response; with Lilian Greenwood following a week later, with a thorough and considered response. Still, a win to Anna. I also award her bonus points for something Cllr. Watts told me: she acts promptly and effectively to referrals he has made. I’m also impressed with her attempts to stop the cuts hitting Broxtowe too heavily, especially her entirely sensible attitude to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau: force banks and credit card companies to fund the CAB, and delve into the £100,000,000 contingency fund the Government has set up to act as a buffer for charities badly hit by the force of the cuts. This I salute, how she follows it through however is something that I’ll be watching very closely over the next year.
AVOIDANCE OF GAFFES
Where to start? The first utterly silly mistake was to instantly renege on a promise that she wouldn’t hire a party activist or her constituency office, then promptly doing just that. Bad enough, but when I noticed that the worker was none other than the infamous Craig Cox, erstwhile Conservative student activist and headline grabber: http://www.thisisnottingham.co.uk/news/Nottingham-student-held-pro-slavery-poster/article-395713-detail/article.html . When the proper media picked up on this after my expose, Soubry became rather ruffled and said his past actions were ‘history, we should move on’ and hastily decided that Cox was only there on a temporary basis. He then reappeared failing to take control of Conservative Future, the youth wing of the Tories, some reports citing his slavery ‘blunder’ as the reason his bid failed. Cox then disappeared off my radar for a while, before reappearing earlier this year being parachuted into a relatively safe ward (Chilwell and Toton Meadows) in the locals. I did get to chat to him recently, and to give him credit he had every right to tell me to go and do some pretty obscene things to myself. However, he was cautiously courteous, and we swapped numbers. More on this in future Beestonia.
This was small fry however, compared to the clanger dropped towards the end of 2010. Twelve days after acknowledging in the Beeston Express the strength of local feeling regarding the privatisation of the Royal Mail, and after meeting representatives from the CWU, she stood up in the House of Commons and said that she had received no written opposition to privatisation. Boom.
The fallout can be read in Beestonia passim, from the giant, un-ignorable postcard delivered to her constituency office by some severely disgruntled posties, to the calls for her to make a formal apology (she didn’t) and then to the triggering of Beeston’s largest march in living memory, as on a freezing drizzly winters day the streets were packed with people demanding that the ‘Post be kept public’. I doubt many of Broxtowe’s posties (and they are many, I was even one once upon a time) would have voted for Soubry in 2010, but any hope of winning any over was effectively flushed away at that point.
A year ago, I suggested that Anna would hit the front-benches sooner than later, and while that hasn’t happened yet, I see it as a formality after a couple of reshuffles. As Nick Palmer wrote in a previous piece for Beestonia, it is important for an MP to make themselves indispensible by carving out a niche for themselves early on, and Anna has done that with aplomb. Her previous career as a Barrister has served her well to act as an authority on complex legal issues, while her career before the Bar, as a media celeb (Central News East, This Morning, and Prisoner Cell Block H-Live!) allows her to need minimal media training before being stuck in front of Paxman for a live grilling. Recent appearances on BBC Question Time and Newsnight have done little to damage her profile, and as Ken Clarke seems to be letting his mojo slip: the clumsy rape furore, apparently falling asleep during Osborne’s budget speech/ Obama’s historical address, we can see how his protégé is ready to oust the mentor. Consider this prediction.
Its 2015, and the General Election is looming. Ken Clarke is now in his eighties, and after a string of gaffes has been eased onto the backbenches, out of view of nap-catching television cameras. Soubry has taken up the areas left vacant by Clarke: as a socially moderate, Europe-friendly MP she fills this role well. Yet threes a problem. The narrow majority of her seat means re-election is highly unlikely, and her raised profile makes it even more of a target-more of a scalping- for Labour. What to do? Fight on shaky ground, or do a bit of shuffling? The latter is safer, and Ken Clarke can be easily persuaded to spend more time with his Hush-puppies and take a peerage. Rushcliffe thus becomes vacant, Anna gets shifted to this safe seat, and everyone’s happy. Richard Jackson, Craig Cox or a fiery newcomer gets to challenge Palmer for Broxtowe.
Not convinced? Then let’s look at a few more clues. It’s been noted by many of late that Soubry has ambitions beyond a single-term MP, indeed ones that might stretch all the way to the top. She’s lately gone blonde, and her voice seems to have slowed and deepened. I have heard mention of a resemblance to a certain famous female politician a few times over the last fortnight. Also an East Midlander….
Watch This Space.
It’s no secret that I’ve not hit it off with Anna. She refuses to talk to me, accusing me of ‘sexism’, and referring to me in a chat to a constituent who met her in Westminster as ‘that awful writer’. This has probably led me to be more merciless towards her than is fair, but I’m not the BBC. I assume she assumes that I’m Labour, and I have never made a secret of having lots of friends in the Labour Party, but I also have (reasonably) good contacts in the Lib Dems, Greens and the Conservatives- Cllr. Eric Kerry actually told me a brace of great stories recently, and Cllr. Richard Jackson has been friendly, open and accommodating of late. As the incumbent, I scrutinise Anna but no more than I would do Palmer, or indeed Watts, if they had taken control. It’s a shame she refuses to participate in Beestonia, but the door is open….
Broxtowe is a vibrant area for political discourse. There are few certainties, as the last Local Election proved. On both a local and national level we are of huge importance to the main parties: hence the disproportionate amount of visits we get from government and opposition politicians. Anna’s election was almost too neatly a microcosm of the National scene: a swing to the Conservatives, but not enough to dig down and take root. Opinion polls look bleak for Anna: an election tomorrow would sweep her from her seat with ease, even if the Lib Dems remained as strong as they were in 2010.
Ken Clarke is on the ropes, with even Murdoch baying for his blood. Will Anna step forward before 2015, and lay the fatal blow as Baron Rushcliffe silently mouths ‘Et tu, Soubs?’ I’m off down Ladbrokes to stick a fiver down. Send me your thoughts via the comments box or at firstname.lastname@example.org .