Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse: “Brexit is a stupid thing to do”
After winning back the city of Bath for her party, new Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse is ready to fight for Britain’s future in Europe. She talks to Sebastian Whale
Rumours of a Liberal Democrat renaissance after the party’s 2015 drubbing flattered to deceive. Buoyed by a string of successes in local council by-elections, jubilant after ousting Zac Goldsmith in Richmond, it seemed that an unforeseen case of yellow fever was sweeping the nation. And yet, the party’s election campaign stuttered as its then leader, Tim Farron, battled questions about his personal views on homosexuality. The Lib Dems’ unashamedly pro-Remain platform failed to draw in support in key target seats. The contingent of eight MPs increased to 12 after 8 June, far short of initial expectations.
But in the student-laden city of Bath, this staunch anti-Brexit approach paid dividends. Overturning a 3,833 Tory majority, Wera Hobhouse was elected on a healthy 9.8% swing to the Lib Dems, booting out incumbent MP Ben Howlett. “I think Brexit was one of the main drivers,” she says, sitting in her third-floor office in Portcullis House, Westminster. “To be in a seat with a relatively small Conservative majority to overturn, a very strong Remain vote, plus a long tradition of a Lib Dem MP was a perfect condition to win that seat again.”
While some divisions persist in the Lib Dems over Brexit persist, Hobhouse is wholly on board with the party’s current position. “You could say currently we are up against it, but I think the reason why I fight for some form of membership of the EU, is because I think it is utter madness to be out of it,” she says. An admirer of those who “fight against injustice” (she cites Nelson Mandela as one of these), is that how she perceives battling Brexit?
“It’s less an injustice, it’s just a stupid thing to do,” she explains. Brexit is a little too close to home for Hobhouse, it seems. She was born in Hanover, Germany before moving to the UK in 1990 aged 30, and notes the role the institution played for her country of birth after the first half of the 20th Century.
“Europe and the European institutions was one way of becoming part of an internationally accepted body again, she begins. “Germans always do suffer from a massive guilt problem, and… being members of an organisation within the western world was important.
“But the main thing was to prevent another war between European nations again. I still think that is at the bottom of it. People have become complacent about the possibilities of war, and as much as Europe is frustrating at least people have not taken up arms again. They might have taken up verbal arms, but it’s very, very different than throwing bombs on each other. That’s what Europe has done. That’s why I believe in Europe.”
Hobhouse seems right at home then in the Lib Dems, who under their newly elected leader, Vince Cable, have continued as the de facto Remain party in England. Hobhouse has been politically minded since the age of 16, and has enjoyed an eclectic career as a radio journalist, artist and latterly as a teacher of modern languages (she is fluent in English, German and French).
But she began her political career as a Conservative councillor in Rochdale, before switching allegiances to the Lib Dems nine months into her tenure (along with her husband, Willian Hobhouse). She was approached for the role in 2004 and signed up without much consideration of the Tories’ policy platform at the time, she confesses.
As a note to other would-be converters, Hobhouse says: “I would advise against doing this sort of thing, the personal damage you cause is big and it’s a nasty thing. It affects personal relationships.”
Hobhouse, who was the Lib Dem candidate in North East Somerset at the 2015 election, also attests to having voted Green during her years in Germany. The environment, alongside Brexit, is a key issue for the 57-year-old.
“I’ve always been a green campaigner when I was councillor. Brexit is one big issue; climate change is a much bigger issue globally. That should never fall off the agenda for the Lib Dems particularly,” she says. Is she concerned Britain’s departure from the EU threatens to overshadow the issue?
“It does, definitely. Although I’d say again Europe has been a force for good, particularly on environmental legislation. We’ve done a lot of things in this country that we wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t for Europe. I think a lot of environmental protections probably are in danger with Brexit – another reason why we should fight it.”
We meet on a Wednesday morning. Westminster is heaving; the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the new parliamentary term is about to begin. Three months on from the election, Hobhouse is not exactly looking forward to another edition of the weekly slanging match.
“I knew it would be quite raucous, but I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was,” she says. “In fact, when you are in the Chamber it is a lot noisier than a television viewer can see or hear. Originally, I was really quite shocked about the really bad behaviour. For the life of me I cannot understand why it’s acceptable or why politicians think it would put them into any good light in front of their constituents… It’s a male world that particularly women I think find quite offensive.”
She has sought a meeting with Speaker John Bercow over the barracking in the Commons (which she counts as her least favourite thing about Parliament) and is not willing to let it slide. As for what she enjoys most about being an MP, Hobhouse perhaps refreshingly singles out her parliamentary colleagues.
“People often underestimate the amount of work it takes to be an MP, we are always up against it and people have put themselves forward from across the political divide to want to make a difference to the lives of their constituents. I think this is good, and it’s good to see that my colleagues are sincere,” she says.
“Particularly on Brexit, I honestly and sincerely disagree with them. But I could not accuse anybody of not making the arguments, because they actually believe what they are saying.”