Wetherspoon’s chief punches above his weight on a no-deal Brexit

Tim Martin, the Brexit-supporting founder of the JD Wetherspoon pub group, is an easy man to caricature. He’s been known to sport a mullet hairstyle, long after the brief aberration in fashion history when such experiments were indulged; he has a sense of humour that includes naming his pub chain after a former teacher who couldn’t control his class; and he speaks his mind in a manner that inevitably draws parallels with the Pub Landlord, the comic creation of standup Al Murray.

Take this Martin tale from a few months into his own hospitality career, when a straggler refused to depart his boozer at closing time. The drinker wouldn’t budge, the police were summoned, but Martin grew bored and so simply poleaxed the punter. As the customer lay on the floor, the rozzers finally arrived, only for a barman to report that the customer had “attacked the guv’nor”. “The policeman told him to get up and apologise,” Martin once recalled.

This, of course, feeds into the narrative beloved by knockers of both Martin’s pubs and Brexit views: the man is merely a rich, entertaining crank. But, more soberly, the real story is far more complex than that.

For starters, Martin has constructed a business worth £1.3bn from scratch. He has grown that business while the sector has struggled. And he trades a heck of a lot with Europe and the wider world (sparkling wine from Australia, prawns from China), so actually has direct experience of tariffs and customs checks to inform the sound bites. All of which will be in focus when JD Wetherspoon reports interim results this week.

On tariffs, Martin’s argument essentially boils down to the belief that UK food prices will reduce in the event of a no-deal Brexit, because tariffs would be cut to zero. Onerous customs inspections – and the predicted lengthy queues at Dover – would not materialise as the regulations with the EU “are already aligned”, while non-EU imports would require far fewer checks as no one would be inspecting to see if tariffs were owed.

Meanwhile, private companies such as supermarkets, pubs and restaurants are already responsible for inspecting overseas farms and factories to see if they comply with UK legislation on standards and quality.

If needed, replacement products can be sourced from the UK and outside Europe (Wetherspoon’s has recently ditched the German liqueur Jägermeister for a cheaper UK alternative. Martin claims sales increased.)

These arguments do have an intuitive appeal, but even Remain-supporting economists admit there is a factual underpinning to Martin’s tariff opinions. The issue, they say, is if wider factors might come into play.

Sam Lowe, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, says: “While there is an assumption that removing tariffs means lower prices for consumers, the evidence is far from conclusive. When tariffs go up the extra cost is usually passed on to consumers, but when they go down this is rarely the case.”

Simon French, chief economist at investment bank Panmure Gordon, adds: “I might marvel that the New Zealand lamb shank served at Wetherspoon’s post-Brexit is only £4 – but am I now paying jobseeker’s allowance to the Welsh sheep farmer who used to supply it at £6?”

Both sides will have considered all of these points – and still come to different conclusions on the risks. No one can be sure what no-deal will actually mean, and even if your arguments were essentially wrong, unforeseen events might suddenly make you look right. Just ask Martin after he poleaxed his customer.


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