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?
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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How a devolved immigration policy could work in Brexit Britain

London and Scotland could keep free movement, or something close to it. 

Just a few short months after the vote to Leave, Britain and the European Union appear to be hurtling towards confrontation – and mutual self-harm. At the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), we believe that what we need is not “hard Brexit” or “soft Brexit” but “smart Brexit”.

At the moment, too much of the debate is characterised by clinging on to obsessively ideological positions, or attempting to relitigate the referendum because you didn’t like the result. There is far too little serious policy thinking taking place.  

Firstly, we should demand that politicians think again on immigration policy. Recent polling has shown that the country is split on whether to prioritise the economy or immigration control in the negotiations. Given this, it would be reasonable to expect politicians to attempt to accomplish both. Yet politicians on both left and right have marched off to the extremes.

Theresa May has indicated that we are heading towards a one-size-fits-all closed borders system; Jeremy Corbyn has made an absolute commitment to freedom of movement, defining immigration as a problem of austerity economics. Both positions are overly simplistic, unoriginal, and show little regard for our democracy or national interest. We should begin by disentangling the different strands of the immigration debate. 

The referendum exposed three broad contours to the immigration question. The first is that different parts of the country have different interests; the benefits and costs of immigration are not evenly distributed, particularly with regard to jobs. Second, there is an important cultural dimension about consent – expressed as "nobody asked us" – and the pace of change in specific communities. It was striking that the areas with the highest levels of immigration strongly voted Remain; but those with the fastest pace of change voted strongly Leave. Third, that there are public concerns about the impact of immigration on public services and housing.

A devolved immigration system would allow different parts of the country to act according to their (divergent) interests. It could work by using certificates of sponsorship to require employers to specify the place of work and residence of the employees they sponsor; and by setting region-specific quotas for these certificates by sector (and possibly pay level).

Such an approach would better secure our national interest by recognising our regional differences, boost democratic decision-making and so address consent, and go some way to address the impact on public services and housing. It would work for both EU and non-EU migrants. There are international precedents, such as Canada. 

A regional solution

Under this option, different regions would determine their interests and then either set quotas for specific sectors or determine that some or all sectors should have no restrictions, differentiated by EU and non-EU migrants. In sectors which required work permits, employers would need to draw down against agreed quotas. Employers would be required to register a place of work for migrant employees, and ensure that their home address was in a commutable distance from their place of work. For those sectors without restrictions, registration would take place but would not be subject to quotas. It would mean some additional rigidity in the labour force - migrants workers would not be able to be redeployed from one part of the country to another without affecting each region’s quotas. 

The key to such an approach is London. The capital is a huge draw for people from overseas - it would have to decide to sustain free movement for a devolved system to have any chance of being effective. There would simply be too much risk of backdoor entry to London if it were to set quotas. Londoners, like the rest of the country, are split on immigration. Nonetheless, they elected a Mayor who openly supports free movement, London’s globally-orientated services sector benefits strongly from immigration, and voted strongly for Remain. There is every reason to believe that London would decide to continue free movement for EU citizens. 

The crucial step for such an approach to have legitimacy would be to have democratic control of setting work permit quotas. For Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London, the devolved democratic structures are already in place to make decisions on immigration. Not only did Scotland vote strongly to Remain, when Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave her first major post-Brexit speech at IPPR in July, she described the importance of free movement for Scotland. The Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies are clearly well-placed to make decisions for their parts of the Union. 

Democratic solutions for other parts of the country would need to be bespoke. One approach might be to form “Grand Committees” of existing elected representatives in different regions. These would bring together elected council leaders, the newly-elected Metro Mayors, and Members of Parliament, with voting in an electoral college, determined by population size. They would then consult with the public and employers, examine the evidence, and make the decisions for which the public could hold them to account.   

Goodbye, net migration target

Elected politicians would need to be able to make informed decisions, based on analysis of the skills base and the workforce requirements for sectors in each region. It would be vital to have proper consultation processes with employers and with citizens and communities. 

Such an approach would also require the devolution of the education and skills systems. If employers cannot seek skilled labour from overseas, they will need to be able to secure skilled workers at home. The entity responsible for immigration policy would need to make skills policy, too. 

National immigration policy would be reserved for those areas that are properly national, such as refugee resettlement and asylum policy for those fleeing persecution. By focusing national political choices on matters of principle, it would enable us to have a more moral conversation about our obligations in the world. It would stop us from conflating the people fleeing the terrible destruction in Syria with those looking for a boost to their pay from higher wages in Britain than in Eastern Europe. It might just enable us to begin to act like responsible members of the international community again. We should also embrace what could be termed “cultural free movement”: allowing all EU citizens to visit and to study across the UK visa-free. This would tap into the nobler – and popular – aspects of the European project, and might be used to secured our continuing participation in pan-European scientific research and the Erasmus programme. Immigration controls on the citizens of European countries should be reserved for employment, through work permits.    

It would also require the net migration target to be abandoned, as it is completely inconsistent to have a national net target with devolved controls. This would be a good thing: it would provide political cover to abandon a particularly stupid piece of policy. As IPPR has argued for many years, it makes absolutely no sense to lump together American bankers, Polish builders, and Syrian refugees and count them all as the same. Furthermore, a recent IPPR report concluded that the numbers are probably shoddy anyhow. They simply don't stand up to serious scrutiny. If you believe the official figures, tens of thousands of people get university degrees and then disappear into black economy jobs earning cash-in-hand every year. It’s just not plausible.

So, how can a devolved immigration system help?

Professors and fruitpickers

A devolved immigration system would recognise that different parts of the country have different interests. Strong majorities in London and Scotland have voted for political leaders that openly support free movement of people. In other parts of the country, there appears to be a stronger consensus that free movement is not in their interests. 

The East of England, for example, might conclude that it needed migrants to work in the fields of the fens and to work in research laboratories in Cambridge’s world leading institutions, and place no restrictions on fruit pickers and professors. But it might also decide to set quotas for skilled jobs in light manufacturing, and to direct the skills system to train local workers for those roles instead of opening those opportunities up to migrants. This would mean that the immigration system could be optimised to the interests of different parts of the UK. 

Moreover, a devolved approach would humanise the debate on immigration. It would require practical choices determined by regional needs. It would remind us that migrants are people who do essential jobs like work in our hospitals (I imagine every part of the UK will want to keep the NHS functioning). It would demand that local employers make the case to local politicians. It might just take us away from high level statistics and low level instincts. It would take us from the politics of the gut being fought in the gutter to a more responsible discussion. 

Critics will say that this will end up with free movement in a complex and bureaucratic way. Even if this was the case – it is not clear that it would be – it would mean that people would have decided for themselves that migration was beneficial. Some degree of messiness is inherent in any compromise solution; and the incremental complexities of a devolved rather than national system are marginal. If Britain found its way to free movement by democratic consent rather than by Whitehall diktat, that would surely be preferable. Then, the question, “what have the immigrants ever done for us?” might well receive a Monty Pythonesque response. 

Tackling the pressures

Proper management of immigration means addressing its consequences. In a world where public sector budgets are being cut, services have struggled to cope with demand. Most studies have demonstrated that migrants, in the aggregate, are net contributors to the public purse but that does not take away from the pressures felt locally. Politicians on the left and right have alighted on some common ground in their approach - all major parties support a migration impact fund. Yet a migration impact fund, whilst necessary and useful, is ultimately marginal.  

The real solution must be to address the underlying allocation formulae that create these distributional problems. In addition to his pointless, destructive, and unnecessary reorganisation of the NHS, Andrew Lansley also tampered with the allocation formula that distributes NHS budgets across the country. It was reweighted to increase the significance of age, meaning that areas with more older people received disproportionately more money, while resources were moved away from younger, poorer areas. 

This was an act of grotesque political cynicism. It had the effect of redistributing from poorer typically Labour-voting areas to older, wealthier Tory-voting areas. But the other affect was to shift resources away from places with high immigration, since migrants are typically young themselves and have higher fertility rates. It was a far more significant – and cynical – decision than the abolition of the pitiful migrant impact fund. And so reinventing the migrant impact fund is merely tinkering at the edges.  

Similarly, blaming immigration for the housing crisis is easy but wrong. A large number of new arrivals certainly adds to the pressure. But it pales in significance when compared to our abject failure to build enough houses. Britain has roughly double the population of Canada and yet builds just one-third of the new homes every year. The solution to the lack of affordable housing is to build more homes. No immigration policy is going to solve the housing crisis. 

What are the drawbacks?

A devolved immigration system certainly has some drawbacks, both in substance and implementation. As with any sector-based approach to immigration, there is a risk of getting the numbers wrong resulting in skills shortages for employers, or putting firms off from investment by creating uncertainty about the labour supply. Those areas that had decided to introduce particularly draconian controls might find that employers decided to move elsewhere. This is no more true than at a national level, as reports from international firms reconsidering their investments illustrate.  

Operationally, it could become complex and bureaucratic. The foolish dismantling of the Government Digital Service has seriously eroded central government’s capacity and capability to do things in an efficient, modern way. As with all immigration systems, people will be tempted to abuse it, and it would need to be robustly policed. Moreover, this system would place greater responsibilities on employers - they would have to face stiffer penalties if they abused – or permitted abuse to take place – the system. Part of the price would be the inevitable steady drumbeat of stories in the xenophobic parts of the press finding people working where they were not registered. But these drawbacks – whilst important – are massively outweighed by the benefits. 

Immigration and the Brexit deal

The international response to the government’s strident signals about immigration control has been fiercely negative. The hostility of tone – verging on xenophobia – was regarded with shock and disgust in many European capitals. The political dynamic between British politicians and their European counterparts has quickly become toxic. We are heading down the path of "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD). 

For the most part, European leaders see the EU as an inextricable part of their national interests, which is precisely why its preservation is top of their agenda. Right now, their judgement seems to be that Britain must be seen to be worse off because of Brexit in order to prevent the Exit contagion catching, just as they were determined to punish Greece so that the debt crisis would not spread to Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. After all, as Nigel Farage himself pointed out, there are somethings that are more important that GDP, and most European leaders believe preservation of the EU falls into that category. 

Speaking privately, one European cabinet minister recently told me that his country would be pushing for the “worst possible deal” for the UK because “a good deal for you would cause chaos for us, and even if you were seen to be treated fairly, that would push us towards the exit door”. At present, the mindset is that Britain must be seen to pay a price, and there is a very real risk that the EU forces us to choose between our car industry and our financial services sector. This is yet another reason that we need to be seeking common ground, not pursuing a divisive approach in the country or internationally.  

A devolved immigration system might enable EU leaders to say that free movement had been secured because it would continue in London and Scotland (and possibly in other regions too) along with nationwide “cultural free movement”. Given their fidelity to the principle of free movement, it would still require them to make quite a departure from their existing position. But in a devolved immigration system, we might just find our common ground. That, perhaps combined with paying a hefty fee, might be just about enough to secure our access to the single market and participation in some of its key institutions – vital if we are to be regulation makers rather than takers – or at the very least tariff-free trade for tradable goods and passporting for the City of London. It would certainly be a more attractive offer than us pulling up the drawbridge or being "pro having our cake and pro eating it".

Finally, there is a wider issue at stake here. As we enter into the negotiations, we will need much more smart thinking about nuanced solutions. At the present, our political leaders – on left and right – appear to be spending more time posturing and swaggering than thinking. Our Conservative Prime Minister and recently re-elected opposition leader are sacrificing the national interest on the altar of party management, the perpetual problem in British politics. We should demand Smart Brexit, and we should demand more creative thinking from our government, its leaders, advisers and officials. In this period of turmoil, the British people deserve nothing less.    

Tom Kibasi is the Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.