BLACKPOOL, England (Reuters) - Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin says British business has nothing to fear from leaving the European Union without a deal, and to prove it he’s “Brexiting” his pubs by swapping French champagne and cognac for English sparkling wine and Australian brandy.
The 63-year-old entrepreneur has just completed a two-month tour of 100 of his pubs to campaign for a no-deal Brexit over a pint of beer - or a drink from one of their new suppliers.
In the northwest-England seaside resort of Blackpool, where 67.5 percent voted to leave the EU, about 50 locals turned out on a January afternoon at The Velvet Coaster, a three-floor “superpub” that opened in 2015, to hear him speak.
Martin was one of the few big business leaders who publicly backed Brexit during Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, and he is now in an even smaller group of those pushing for the country to leave the bloc without a withdrawal deal.
“We can eliminate tariffs on thousands of products, many of which aren’t made in the UK, like rice, bananas, oranges, New Zealand wine - 12,000 products, and that will make people in the country better off,” he said in an interview at the bar.
Many of Britain’s big companies shied away from the debate in 2016, fearful of alienating customers on the opposing side.
Martin had no such qualms, and has continued to campaign on television, in the company’s stock market reports and even on beer mats for a complete break with Brussels.
He said he was testing the validity of the scare stories about a no-deal Brexit, such as empty shelves caused by snarl-ups at ports, in his own pubs, which offer cut-price deals on drinks and meals.
“Wetherspoon had a European supply chain, we were buying French brandy, French champagne, spirits from Germany, and so on, and we’ve switched, because people said the ports might seize up, which I don’t think they will,” he said.
“We’ve got equal or better products at lower prices from outside the EU.”
Retailers such as Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and McDonald’s warned on Monday of major short-term disruption if there were no Brexit deal, adding it would be impossible to stockpile fresh food. They also said setting import tariffs at zero would devastate Britain’s farmers.
Martin, however, said companies needed to “raise their eyes above the horizon”, noting that 93 percent of the world’s population was outside the EU.
He said beyond changing suppliers, Wetherspoon, which has more than 900 pubs, did not have to do anything to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.
“No one’s said we need to do anything and I don’t think we do,” he said after posing for selfies with customers. “We’re just pulling pints and making fish and chips as usual.”
Retiree Jean Greaves, aged 76, who voted leave in 2016, said in the pub that Britain might have a rough few weeks after Brexit day on March 29, but “then I think we’ll start bouncing back, I truly do”.
On a nearby street, Jonathan Brown, aged 64, who was in the minority that voted to remain in the EU, said he had no time for those who said no-deal would be good for business.
“I think they’re deluded, absolutely deluded,” he said.
Writing by Paul Sandle; Editing by Mark Potter