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.

You are invited to read this free preview of the New Statesman, out on 26 September. Our Conservative party conference special features an interview with Peter Gabriel, essays by David Marquand and Peter Clarke, Rafael Behr's report from Ukip conference, Tom Watson on Grand Theft Auto and Richard Overy on the First World War. To subscribe, visit newstatesman.com/subscribe
 
 
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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.