Andrew Mitchell: “Ukip are our cousins and we want them back”

Andrew Mitchell talks to Jemima Khan about the NHS, nicknames, and what life would be like if his preferred candidate had beaten David Cameron to the Tory leadership.

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Why are you a Conservative?
Freedom of the individual; it’s in my bones!
 
What attributes must a modern politician have?
Boundless energy and a thick skin.
 
How would the country look different if David Davis –whose leadership campaign you ran in 2005 – had won?
The sun would shine every day and we’d all live healthily until the age of 100. Also the remote and faraway colony of St Helena would have a senior member of the current government as its governor! It is clear we would not have had a vote on military intervention in Syria.
 
You resigned as chief whip over “Plebgate”. When will you be reinstated? Surely it’s only a matter of time?
I am consulting my astrological chart.
 
Do you regret leaving the Department for International Development (DfID), when you were so passionate about what you did there, to become chief whip?
Of course. But if the Prime Minister asks you to do something, you should really say yes (if you cannot dissuade him).
 
What was your biggest achievement at DfID?
That is not really for me to say. But, hopefully, putting girls and women at the centre of everything we did. In particular, in 2011, we organised an international meeting to secure support for a massive increase in vaccinating children under five years old. Britain’s contribution will be to vaccinate a child in the poor world every two seconds. In 2012, we organised a summit in London which should result in a hundred million more women in the poorest parts of the world, who want access to contraception but cannot get it, being able to do so by 2020.
 
Should the government continue to increase aid spending after 2015?
Aid spending has now reached 0.7 per cent of gross national income, as we promised. It should remain at 0.7 per cent.
 
Should the National Health Service still be protected from spending cuts after 2015?
Yes. It is essential because of the growing elderly population and increases in the cost and scope of medicine. I declare an interest, with a wife and daughter who are both doctors in the NHS.
 
How can the Tories deal with the threat from Ukip?
They are mostly our cousins and we want them back.
 
Would you like to be the next commissioner of the European Union?
It would not be compatible with being the member of parliament for Sutton Coldfield.
 
What EU powers would you like the British government to repatriate?
There are areas where national governments are better at responding to the wishes of those they serve than a supranational organ - isation can be. We should discuss the repat - riation of these powers with our colleagues in other national parliaments and try to reach a common understanding with other national politicians.
 
Can the Tories win a majority in 2015?
Yes.
 
If there’s a hung parliament, should the Tories form another coalition with the Lib Dems, or try a “confidence and supply” arrangement or minority government?
Minority governments are not in the interest of economic stability and rising living standards. They make for weak government.
 
Is the present government too elitist?
No. We should ensure that the best people for a task undertake it and that there is a level playing field of opportunity for everyone. It is not where you come from that matters; it is what you can do to serve our country.
 
You voted for intervention in Syria. To what extent? Why?
Our main aim must be to bring this conflict to an end as rapidly as possible. While there is no military solution, the issue is whether limited, legal and specific military action against the capacity of the regime to use its chemical weapons would have been more likely to speed up that process. But events have moved on and we must all hope that the current diplomatic initiative by the Russians and Americans assists that process.
 
The humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and the surrounding countries is worse than anything we have seen since two million people stampeded out of Rwanda at the end of the genocide in 1994. Its scale and threat for the future are not well understood.
 
How relevant is the United Nations? How can it be made more relevant?
When I visited the UN as a minister I always arrived with low expectations but left inspired and exhilarated. It was precisely the reverse with the EU: I would arrive with a determination to be optimistic and constructive and get back on the Eurostar in a state of acute depression.
 
We need to build on the power, authority and legitimacy of the UN – not least in the areas of international law and the responsi - bility to protect, which is urgent, unfinished business. When the UN speaks with one voice it confers incredible legitimacy and authority. It is also important that its many agencies should be held to account for their results and value for money. Britain has led this process and it is increasingly being copied by other countries.
 
Is the nickname Thrasher an invention by Private Eye, or were you really called that at school?
I am very sorry to say that it is an invention by Private Eye! A piece appeared in 1987, when I was first an MP, which said: “Like Hitler [Douglas] Hurd, when at school, Andrew Mitchell was a stern disciplinarian known as Thrasher.”
 
Do you think the government is wrong not to have taken action against the Muttahida Qaumi Movement leader Altaf Hussain, a known terrorist based in London since the 1990s, and given a British passport in 2002?
This case [involving a Pakistani politician] has always left me feeling extremely uneasy.
 
Why is it important for this country to keep giving international aid, despite its own economic situation? British aid is not only aid from Britain; it is aid for the direct benefit of Britain, too. By investing in conflict prevention and security, as well as trade and economic development, we not only help poorer countries in which we are working, we are also investing in our own future security and prosperity.
 
How do you avoid poor countries becoming client states, dependent on aid?
The whole aim of Britain’s development programme is to do itself out of a job. It is to help people lift themselves off aid and not remain dependent on it.
 
What about giving aid to countries we know are corrupt?
Britain, rightly, has a zero tolerance of corruption and whenever it is discovered action is taken immediately.
 
Why did you reverse the cuts to Rwanda on your last day in office? Was this a mistake, given the evidence of Rwandan repression at home and President Paul Kagame’s backing for Congolese rebels?
Together with others in government, I took the decision to release aid to Rwanda (it had not been cut, but withheld) and made the announcement immediately because I thought it would be unfair and wrong to leave a difficult decision to my successor who inevitably would not be up to speed on these matters.
 
Besides which, the necessary consultation across government had taken place and an agreed position reached. To have cynically left it for [Justine Greening, his successor as secretary of state at DfID] to announce once the decision had been made so that she would have taken the brickbats for it would have been singularly uncollegiate.
 
Do you support the new high-speed rail link, HS2? Should there be a cap on its budget?
As a Birmingham MP, I strongly support HS2. This is about capacity, not speed, and about spreading economic development and wealth to all parts of the country and not just to London and the south-east.
 
Do you do God?
Politicians should leave God to the bishops and our religious leaders.
 
Are we all doomed?
We are the luckiest generation in history. Unlike our fathers, we did not face the Second World War and unlike our grandfathers we avoided the slaughter of the First World War. We will live to a much greater age and have the huge advantage of modern technology and modern medicine.
 
If you hadn’t been a politician where would you be now?
Working for the United Nations or the World Food Programme.
 
Jemima Khan is the associate editor of the New Statesman

 

Andrew Mitchell - a Conservative to the core. Photo: Getty

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue