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Unparliamentary language: Anna Soubry

Agnes Chambre

6 min read

Agnes Chambre sits down with parliamentarians to find out more about the personal side of politics. This week, Conservative MP Anna Soubry on her ‘pathetic’ fear of heights, her biggest regret – and why she won’t ‘shut up’ about Brexit


What is your earliest memory?

Walking to my school in north Nottinghamshire in a village called Dunham-on-Trent, where I lived until I was eight. I’ve got a photographic memory, so I can see the school. I can see the classrooms inside it and I can see the outside lavatories, and I can see myself walking to school with my mother. I can remember sitting a test when I was seven or eight and being able to spell the word beautiful. I can remember all those things.

Do you still have a photographic memory?

It’s not a complete photographic memory; it’s not as good as it used to be, but yes. You literally see things, I see everything.

What were you like at school?

I wasn’t a very good student, either at school or at university. I went to a school in Worksop which was a pretty rough school. It was a grammar school that then became a comprehensive. I do have an ex-husband who, when he read my school report, said that if he had read it before he had married me, he would never have married me.

What did you do?

I just used to just sit in the back of the class and cause trouble.

When you were at school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I actually have something that I wrote for my mother saying I wanted to be Fred Astaire. Interesting that I didn’t want to be Ginger Rogers, I wanted to be Fred Astaire, I think that’s really fascinating. I couldn’t have done either, singing and dancing. I just loved music and to see people singing and dancing. 

What’s something your colleagues don’t know about you?

Maybe that I have a passion for gardening. Any opportunity, I will garden. They’d be very surprised to know that given the opportunity, which is very limited, I will do any sort of hand crafty thing. When I was little I used to be a potter. I can do all that stuff on a wheel. I’ve actually got some bits and bobs that I made. After what went on in the summer of 2016 – the referendum, David Cameron stepping down, me leaving government – I made boxes from some shells I’d collected.

Is it therapeutic?

I think so. When I was a teenager I used to make all my own clothes. My generation did because if you didn’t have much money it was cheaper to go to a fabric shop, buy fabric and a pattern and make your own clothes. I even made bikinis.

Were they any good?

I don’t know. When they were tiny, I made my daughters matching outfits. But then the sewing machine caught fire so I had to do them on Christmas Eve by hand. I just sat there thinking ‘what the hell are you doing?’

What were they like? 

They were purple and red. I can see them now – see!

What habit really annoys you in other people?

I can’t abide people who are ideologues. They are right and everybody else is wrong and it consumes their lives. And people who make assumptions about you before they even know you, I find that quite annoying. I used to be a barrister so people make assumptions about that. The thing I really don’t like is stereotyping.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

To be able to wake up and look yourself in the mirror every morning. That’s what my father told me. You should be able to look yourself in the mirror and not be ashamed at what you see. That’s how he lived, to know you have done the right thing and are going to do the right thing that coming day.

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve been given?

Not to speak out the way I have through the whole Brexit process. But then, not many sensible people have actually given me that advice.

Has anyone given you that advice?

I get enough abuse! “Shut up, you stupid woman”. Yeah, fine, whatever.

Do you have any recurring dreams or nightmares?

I used to have quite concerning dreams about being up on a height across abridge or on top of building.

I haven’t had those dreams in a long time but my vertigo has got worse as I’ve got older. Really bad. Irrational, stupid. I remember once taking my daughters on holiday. We went on a lift that in the winter would have snow underneath it, which I don’t have a problem with – in my mind it’s soft like cotton wool, so if I were to fall that’s fine. But in the summer, there are rocks, so I was a gibbering wreck. I had to be taken off by my daughters, apologising for their mother.

I used to take them to the Nottingham Goose Fair, and there was some utterly hideous ride, I think it was the Mousetrap. I was just a hideous wreck. It’s pathetic. ‘Take her off, give her some candy floss’. 

Have you ever given anything up?

Smoking, nine years ago.

What’s the worst habit you have?

I’m not as bad as I used to be but I do pick my fingers too much.

When you’re feeling stressed, what’s one thing that’s guaranteed to cheer you up?

Gardening, or ‘digging my garden’ as I like to put it.

What is your greatest fear?

The consequences of Brexit on my children and grandchildren to come

What mistakes did you make when you were younger?

Sometimes I’ve regretted not trying to get into Oxford. I just assumed I couldn’t get in and I quite regret that. I should have given it a go. I think some of it was being female, some of it was about being at the school I was at, it wasn’t that thing about ‘go girl, you can go for it’, that kind of attitude. It was always ‘go for second best’. Lack of aspiration. I didn’t have a great time at Birmingham but I think I was ok. I don’t regret reading law. I nearly gave it up to do something else but I’m really pleased I didn’t do that.

Why did you nearly give it up?

I didn’t enjoy it. But I’m really glad I didn’t give it up because it then meant I could become a criminal barrister. I did make a big mistake not finishing my exams, but on the other hand going back in my mid-30s was an astonishing experience. To study in your mid-30s is bloody hard. You work so much better and I could say now with complete authority to sixth formers in my own constituency ‘don’t do what I did’. Do the best you can, don’t do what I did, work your socks off, get those A Levels, they’re the most difficult exams you do but they’ll be the most worth it.

How would your friends describe you in three words

Good fun, hopefully. Never shy in coming forward. What you see is what you get.

What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve done?

Oh, it’s far too embarrassing to tell you.

What’s something you’ve done once that you’ll never do again?

Go on the helter skelter.

What is your favourite joke?

It’s unrepeatable, unfortunately.

When’s the last time you made someone laugh?

Hopefully, just now, with you.

What would be the title of your autobiography?

Speaks Her Mind.

Have you ever broken the law?

I am absolutely not answering that.

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