“I’m 100% sure what I’m saying is true,” Tim Martin tells HuffPost UK, after printing half a million beermats that tell Wetherspoon’s customers Brexit can make their food and drink cheaper, despite repeated warnings that leaving the EU will do the opposite.
“If by any chance I’ve got it wrong, I’ve not made myself look too clever.”
Lots of people would say the chairman of Wetherspoon’s, Britain’s biggest pub chain, has not made himself look too clever.
The chairman of Sainsbury’s, David Taylor, the British Retail Consortium and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have warned Brexit without an EU trade deal will drive up food prices. Clegg said leaving the EU without a deal would mean a 22% tariff on food from the EU.
Undeterred, Martin has printed his beermats for people to read as they down cheap pints at 895 Wetherspoon’s pubs across the country.
The mats say prices will fall - if only politicians had the sense to “stop messing about” and follow The Wetherspoon’s Manifesto: Quit the EU without a transitional deal and use the freedom of World Trade Organisation rules to abolish tariffs our EU membership obliges us to charge on food imports from outside the bloc.
The rules let you do this, he says, so long as you don’t discriminate, so his vision would mean the abolition of food tariffs from in and outside the EU.
The Wetherspoon’s boss thinks axing the tariffs would take 3.5p off each meal served in the chain and 0.5p off each drink.
The avuncular, staunch Brexiteer, who grew his empire from a single pub in 1979 to the huge chain it is now, has been a colourful voice in favour of Brexit.
His chain is such a national institution that a scathing Sunday Times review of one of its newest pubs last weekend caused an uproar and discussion about the role cheap pubs plays in a time of poverty. The review called Martin “a multimillionaire Leave donor who’s now complaining he can’t get the staff”.
This is the second time Martin has pulled the beermat stunt. Before the referendum, he put out ones posing a series of questions doubting the future of the Euro, and urging people to vote Leave.
Announcing the latest beermats in a press release, he said people like Clegg and Taylor were part of “a coordinated campaign to dupe the public”.
One reason he is so confident is his claim that he has not been contradicted, despite being challenged by Andrew Neil on BBC One’s This Week in September. He also set out his views in an article last month headlined: “Project Fear has morphed into Project Stupid.”
Speaking to HuffPost by phone, Martin says his claims have already circulated widely within his trade, who are “mostly Remainers” and he has had not had any reproach, “nor will I”.
“What I’ve said, I’m certain it’s true... I said it on television... I contradicted Andrew Neil and not one person has come back and said ‘no, no, you’ve got that wrong Tim’.”
Conventional wisdom about Brexit’s impact on food prices seems to trouble Martin. He insists there would be no need for extra custom checks, which would make food more expensive.
The fall in the pound’s value, which has already fuelled inflation since the vote, also doesn’t faze him and he says its affect on food is “almost negligible”.
He is more certain than anyone else in the debate, it seems. Revered think tank the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) does not share his confidence. It said in July that Brexit’s impact on food prices was “highly uncertain”.
A study by the National Institute Economic Review, published in the Guardian today, also claimed that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit could see British households’ annual shopping bills increase by up to £930 a year.
LSE economist Thomas Sampson viewed Martin’s press release and told HuffPost it had a “partial truth”, as axing the tariffs would make food cheaper but only cheaper than if Britain left the EU and kept them.
Sampson said: “Are food prices lower following Brexit than if we hadn’t voted to leave the EU? That’s where the claim has less to back it up.”
So will Martin put his money where his mouth is? If he is wrong, will he commit to not raising his prices, so as to not pass the cost of Brexit onto his customers?
“Since food tariffs will drop by definition, food prices will drop, but I suppose you could say, in a slightly legalistic way, it wouldn’t necessarily follow through into the shops,” he says.
“Certainly I’m prepared to put my money where my mouth is and guarantee to keep our prices very low. It’s a bit vague but that’s about the best I can say.”
When asked if he was sure there was no firmer commitment he could make, he said: “What I’m saying is factually correct. That’s the issue, so I can’t see how I could be proved wrong.
“I could offer some sort of penance. ‘If I’m wrong I’ll sell a pound a pint for a year’ or something but I can’t think what I can actually say because Brexit doesn’t occur until March 2019.”
He adds: “I’m absolutely confident in what I’m saying. Someone else can come and say I’m wrong, can’t they? No one has said that and it’s been fairly widely published.”
As the topic of penance is probed further, Martin jokes about publishing a photo of himself wearing a dunce’s hat in Wetherspoon News, the free magazine given to customers.
“I’m trying to help you,” he adds apologetically. “Not sure what I can say... That’s a tongue-in-cheek comment. The best I can say.
“It’s 18 months down the line, that’s almost impossible to make a commitment. If I was wrong, you would’ve found out by now.”
He may be unable to commit to what he’ll do if he’s wrong but his commitment to being right, if anything, only increases. He repeats it boils down to the fact that, if the Government axes the tariffs, food will be cheaper.
“If the Government adopts a sensible policy, food will be cheaper than if we’d stayed in the EU.” Is he still 100% sure?
“I’m 100% sure of that,” he says. “If the Government bangs on huge taxes, it won’t be cheaper. If they adopt a free trade route, I’m 100% certain food will be cheaper.”
“What we can’t say is what might happen in the next 18 months. If the Government whacks on a mass of other taxes... It’s very difficult for me to say anything sensible or realistic.”
This is beginning to sound as if it’s impossible to prove Martin wrong. He keeps repeating the equation that if tariffs go, food will be cheaper. “That’s a definite. That’s axiomatic. It’s not a question I can be wrong on that. On that particular point I can’t be wrong.”
But, I say, he is telling me food will be cheaper than if we voted Remain, which is a much broader claim than simply whether we retain tariffs after leaving the EU.
I suggest there that maybe there are too many hypotheticals but ask, if prices rise, is there anything firm he can commit his chain to doing?
“I just can’t see how I can say anything that makes any sense at all,” he says. “No one running a business can say. It’s a weird question... It’s like saying ‘if the Government drops alcohol tax on beer, what can you offer?’ What could I offer?”
So Martin is sure Brexit can make food cheaper. He’s just not so sure his customers, who can read about how on their beermats, will get to reap the benefits of it.