Theresa May could be forgiven for wondering, how does she solve a problem like Anna Soubry?
Sacked from the cabinet when May became Prime Minister following David Cameron’s decision to resign rather than see through the Brexit process (as he had promised), Soubry, the Tory MP for Broxtowe (a Leave-voting constituency), has been nothing but trouble ever since.
Anointed as the queen of Conservative “Remoaners”, Soubry has been called a traitor, accused of betrayal, and is said to have abandoned the Tories for the SDP when the going got tough in the 80s – a claim she denies.
Now, as the Prime Minister seeks with visible difficulty to hold her parliamentary party together, there is no one making that job harder for her than Soubry.
After the MP’s latest ranty outburst in a pre-recorded interview for BBC’s Newsnight, colleagues are asking if she needs help or should be cut loose as a counter-productive drag on the party’s ability to secure a Brexit it can sell to the British people.
For those who did not see the interview, Soubry argued that May is “in hock to 35 hard ideological Brexiteers, who are not Tories… it is about time Theresa stood up to them and slung ’em out.”
She continued: “If it comes to it, I am not going to stay in a party which has been taken over by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson… And if that means leaving the party, to form some new alliance, God knows, I don’t know… I’m not prepared to sit by any longer and put up with this nonsense.”
Of course, the Conservative party has not (yet) been taken over by Boris, Govey and the Mogg. But what if the clean Brexit they want is indeed the one we get – what then for Soubry? Does she back the government, whose platform she stood on only last year – or does she rebel and try to defeat the government’s central task?
Soubry believes she knows what true Conservatives are, and cited John Major and Cameron as great Prime Ministers brought down by right-wingers with the party.
Funny that – I thought the electorate lost faith in Major after his ERM-caused recession, and Cameron lost moral authority after losing the referendum.
To put this all in context, Soubry narrowly won re-election in Broxtowe in 2017 with 25,983 votes (46.8 per cent of a 75 per cent turnout), standing on the Tory party manifesto that clearly led with delivering Brexit, including leaving the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union.
Back in 2016, Leave won Broxtowe with 35,754 votes (54.6 per cent of a 78 per cent turnout).
Soubry clearly does not have a mandate for attacking the government or trying to stop Brexit, so what options are available to May?
The first is – obviously – to do nothing. Is the best policy not to leave the gobby MP to make herself unpopular and a greater figure of fun? Surely no one could make Soubry more ridiculous than herself? After all, she at least shows how the PM is trying to steer a balanced course.
And if Soubry does rebel to prevent the government delivering Brexit, will her constituents not get rid of her themselves?
The second option is to take her back into government to buy her silence. Soubry might refuse, of course, but that could be made public to emphasise her party disloyalty, putting her in deeper difficulty with Conservative supporters in her constituency and beyond.
The third is to call Soubry’s bluff. If she’s that convinced about repudiating the platform she stood on and opposing her constituency’s wish to leave the EU, let her do the decent thing and “do a Carswell”. Call on her to resign her seat and fight a by-election – by herself or for a new party she might care to establish.
Labour would believe it could win, and with a split Conservative/ Soubry vote, Jeremy Corbyn would most likely gain an MP.
But would that be such a loss if Soubry threatens to regularly defeat the government anyway? With every rebellious vote, Soubry weakens her own position.
Fourth and finally, the whip could be removed, and it could be made known that a new Tory candidate for Broxtowe will be adopted at the next election.
It’s all very well making arguments that question the detail of government bills, but deliberately causing mischief and fomenting division has its limits.
“How do you solve a problem like Anna Soubry?”
Sister Theresa might try singing those words in her bath while she ponders Soubry’s fate….