The rows of suits comprising the audience quivered with the nervous excitement of nuns in the presence of one of the devil's disciples, disapproval mingling with the knowledge that he might teach them a thing or two.
Mr West is the proprietor of EastEnders in Calais, a cut-price warehouse where British bootleggers, holidaymakers and day-trippers stock up with beer and wine, taking advantage of lower French duties on alcohol.
Yesterday's seminar in London was called because of the massive loss of business in Britain since the advent of the single market at the beginning of last year allowed people to bring back virtually unlimited supplies of cheap drink.
The conference was told that the bootleggers were making an estimated pounds 22m a year by illegally reselling drink, mostly beer; that the Treasury missed out on pounds 470m of revenue last year because of cross- channel sales; and that the British drinks industry lost pounds 677m of business. Speaker after speaker demanded a cut in British duties on alcoholic drinks to prevent further damage to businesses.
Peter Jarvis, group chief executive of the brewers Whitbread, said that any reduction would be recovered quickly through increased business and reduced imports.
But Mr West, a former east London market trader, told the audience that they should cut their profits.
'You brewers are enjoying massive profits and until you climb down off them, you are not going to get your product sold. The solution to cutting out the beer runners is in this conference, not with the British government.'
He said that in two weeks, he had sold 164 lorry-loads of beer, and that his Christmas boom started in September with an average of 75 lorryloads a week. Each lorry takes about 2,500 cases.
In the end, his audience found it impossible to dislike him and instead gave their coolest reception to Sir John Cope, the Paymaster General. He told them that to bring British duties into line with France would cost pounds 4bn a year.Reuse content