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

Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era