Headlining Anna Soubry’s constituency newsletter are two quotes about the new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health:
“She has a record of unusually free speech” (Simon Carr, The Independent) and “The beating heart of the parliamentary Tory party” (Quentin Letts, The Daily Mail)
In the two weeks since her appointment as part of Cameron’s reshuffle, there’s been stark evidence of Soubry’s ‘free speech’. Just four days in to the new job, she provoked a media storm following an interview with The Times in which she made a call for greater ‘honesty’ over the debate around assisted suicide. Downing Street and the Department of Health were quick to respond that she wasn’t signaling any loosening of the law, following the unsuccessful case bravely fought by Tony Nicklinson and his family for his right to be supported to end his own life.
One can imagine that there might have been a robust conversation about the need for ministers – especially when only just getting to grips with their brief – to take a more cautious, less candid approach. So it can’t have gone down particularly well in either the Department or No 10 to see another set of weekend papers and another outspoken remark. This time it was The Daily Telegraph and reports that, in a private Q&A session at an NHS Leadership Academy conference, Anna Soubry admitted that the Government “screwed up” in its dealings with the medical professions over the reforms. She has, subsequently, clarified the statement saying “I have always been very supportive of the reforms, and anyone suggesting otherwise is taking my comments out of context.”
As MHP colleagues have discussed before, Cameron must have hoped that removing Andrew Lansley and installing Jeremy Hunt plus a ministerial team with heritage in health policy (Howe and Lamb), medical background (Poulter) and communications skills (Soubry) would help keep things quiet on health. So far he’s been sadly mistaken.
On paper it must have looked good. Soubry was known for her communications skills, having trained as a barrister before turning her hand to journalism and working as a reporter and newscaster for Central News. In the ‘90s she returned to the Bar, and worked as a criminal barrister in Nottingham until her election as MP for Broxstowe in 2010. Identified as an A-lister and after an unsuccessful bid for Gedling in 2005, Soubry took the Broxstowe seat from Labour’s Dr Nick Palmer with a majority of just 389 (0.74%) – only 19 MPs have a smaller majority.
Following her election, Soubry’s interests were largely focused around legal issues, including sponsoring a Private Members Bill to prevent the press from publishing the name and address of someone until they were charged. But her experience in health increased when she was selected as PPS to Minister of State Simon Burns in 2010, charged with bolstering support for the controversial NHS reforms. As a PPS she maintained a relatively low profile, with the notable exception of a spat with the Royal College of GPs’ Dr Clare Gerada on the Politics Show when she rejected claims that doctors did not want the changes, citing a conversation with a doctor from her area who had ‘begged’ her to see the reforms get through.
As one of only four Conservative women to be promoted to junior ministerial positions in the reshuffle (Esther McVey, Helen Grant and Liz Truss are the others, since you ask) Anna Soubry was always likely to be under intense scrutiny. And with a tiny majority to defend, it’s understandable that she would want to make her mark. Some will find her openness refreshing; for others, it will set alarm bells ringing. At this point, she is maintaining ‘unusually free speech’ for a minister. Whether she can continue to do so, stay the ‘beating heart of the parliamentary Tory party’ and keep onside with her bosses remains to be seen.