Lord Bilimoria took us through the backrooms of the Palace of Westminster and explained why he has ‘no respect’ for the EU parliament

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Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea.
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Cobra Beer

To enter the House of Lords, you have to pass through airport-style security. That is unless you are accompanied by Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea – the founder of Cobra beer – who can wave you through.

After beginning an interview with the British-Indian peer in Millbank House, opposite the palaces of Westminster, a bell rang.

Lord Bilimoria had to vote.

Without hesitation, we rushed across Abingdon Street and into the House of Lords. I was left in a comfortable red-leather chair in the peers’ cloakroom, while Lord Bilimoria went to have his say on the amendment.

He returned, brandishing a copy of a newspaper article declaring united Asian support for the Remain vote in the upcoming EU referendum. As we got up to walk around the centuries-old law-making institution, Lord Bilimoria’s smiles hid the complexity of his own views on the EU.


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Cobra Beer

“The reform required in the EU is huge,” Lord Bilimoria told Business Insider. “The red tape and bureaucracies and the European Parliament I have no respect for. I don’t think the MEPs represent their regions. Nobody knows who their MEPs are.”

He admitted that the Brexit arguments are “persuasive,” but, on the whole, he thinks Britain remaining a part of the EU is the “better option.”

He said: “The reality is we’re not part of the Euro, we’re not part of Shenghen, and we said we’re not going to be a part of ever-closer union. So, to that extent, we have the best of both worlds.”


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Cobra

Bilimoria is in the rare position of being an independent politician. He chose to become a cross-bench peer, so that he was not constrained by a party whip, he explained. This means that, unlike many of his fellow peers, Lord Bilimoria actually finds out what he is voting on before making a decision, he says. He backs the government “about 50% of the time.”

On graduation from the University of Cambridge in the early 1990s, Lord Bilimoria admitted he was tempted by the lure of an investment bank. However, the same urge for individuality led a 26-year-old Karan Bilimoria to set up Cobra beer.

“I always had that entrepreneurial urge,” Lord Bilimoria said. “I always wanted that blue sky and the limitless opportunity, so the first the thing was to start my own business.”


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Dr Subroto Cariapa (left) and Karan Bilimoria (right) at the Mysore Brewery in Bangalore, where the first shipment of Cobra beer was produced.
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Lord Bilimoria

After starting a number of ventures which failed to take off – including importing high-quality polo sticks from India to the UK – Karan Bilimoria hit on what he calls his “big idea.”

Lager was gassy and, although he enjoyed British ales on their own, he found them too bitter to be consumed with his beloved Indian food. So, Bilimoria decided to create a beer that combined the refreshing taste of a lager with the smoothness of an ale.

After a year of development, and with the help of a brewery in India, the bottles were shipped to the UK. He and co-founder Arjun Reddy then began filling an old Citroen “Deux Chevaux,” named “Albert,” to capacity (15 crates of Cobra) and flogging them to any curry house they could find.

The niche worked. Cobra beer is now sold in more than 96% of curry houses in the UK. Globally, the brand has a retail value “in the region of £250 million.”


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Karan Bilimoria in the early days of Cobra.
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Lord Bilimoria

However, the road to success was not clear.

“I nearly lost my business three times,” the Lord of Chelsea said. “In the early days we were continually running out of money. Raising finance was a real challenge. We didn’t have things like crowdfunding in those days.”

Lord Bilimoria recounted how he financed Cobra through a combination of “overdrafts, insecure loans, early preference shares, enterprise investment schemes, and small business government investment schemes.”

In many ways, the Zoroastrian Parsi Lord is the ultimate cultural-assimilation success story.

He only arrived in London from India aged 19, but the former polo-playing Lord of Chelsea has developed the mannerisms and accent of a hereditary peer.


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Lord Bilimoria is the Chancellor of the University of Birmingham.
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Lord Billimoria

Immigration, though, is a topic which riles the Lord.

“[Pro-Brexit supporters] don’t talk about the benefits of immigration … There are farmers who that say that without eastern-European labour during harvest season, they wouldn’t be able to harvest,” the peer said.

He has been an outspoken critic of home secretary Theresa May’s policies towards international students, which he sees as greatly valuable “to our economy and our institutions.”

“I’ve been told by the new Australian high commissioner in India: ‘Thank you for your immigration policies. Your policies are sending more immigrants to Australia. We are benefiting. You are losing out,'” he said.


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Cobra Beer

Lord Bilimoria has always had an appetite for politics. In the mid ’90s, he was asked to run as a Conservative MP.

“I almost went for the selection weekend for the Conservative Party,” Lord Bilimoira explained.

However, at the last minute, the young brewer declined the invitation, so that he could focus his energy on developing Cobra, which was still a very young brand.

“I’m so glad that I said no because, the year after, Cobra took off,” he said.

Bilimoria’s second chance to enter the UK political arena came in 2006, when, aged 44, he was asked to become one of the youngest-serving peers. This was an offer he could not refuse.

“The wisdom that exists [in the House of Lords] is just priceless, and not appreciated enough by the public,” he said. “In its current form, ironically, this unelected, appointed-for-life house of lords is the cornerstone of our democracy.

“If it becomes elected, we lose it all.”