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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.