Andrew Mitchell refuses to deny talks on becoming the UK's next EU Commissioner

Former chief whip says there's a "very important job" to be done and confirms that he has met with David Cameron.

Andrew Mitchell has just been interviewed on The Sunday Politics, where he notably refused to deny reports that David Cameron has offered him the chance become the UK's next EU Commissioner in 2014. Whilst quipping that he wasn't going to do his "career planning" live on air, the former chief whip all but confirmed that he had discussed taking up the £250,000-a-year post with Cameron.

"I do see the Prime Minister from time to time but as I say, I'm not going to conduct my career planning today".

He added: "There's a very important job to be done in Europe to make sure that Europe changes in the interests of everyone in Europe but also in the interests of Britain, I don't deny that. But as I say, my central interest at the moment is to support my party in any way I can and to look after my constituents in Sutton Coldfield."

The offer was reportedly made by Cameron at a Chequers lunch for Mitchell last Sunday, a signal of the former chief whip's political rehabilitation. There is a strong feeling among Conservative MPs that Mitchell deserves to be compensated for his enforced resignation over "plebgate" after video evidence appeared to confirm his version of events. Initially it was assumed that this would take the form of a return to the cabinet but Mitchell is now viewed as the ideal candidate to replace Baroness Ashton as the UK's EU Commissioner when she finishes her term as EU foreign policy chief next year. One source tells the Mail on Sunday: "The PM believes Andrew is ideal for the job. He won considerable respect worldwide for his negotiating skills as Secretary of State for International Development, he knows about finance through his banking background, and his record in the Whips Office shows he is not scared to bash heads to get a result."

In an overt display of his interest in the position, Mitchell recently penned an article for the FT ("Europe needs Cameron's tough love"), supporting Cameron's proposed renegotiation of Britain's EU membership and floating proposals including a joint sitting of the UK and Polish parliaments and a joint UK-Dutch cabinet meeting.

Were Mitchell to take up the post, he would be required to resign as an MP, triggering a by-election in his Sutton Coldfield constituency. The Tories currently have a majority of 17,005 (33.6) per cent in the constituency, making it one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. But as Mike Smithson suggests, UKIP, which has a good chance of winning that year's EU elections, will hope to mount a strong challenge if the seat does indeed fall vacant.

Andrew Mitchell, the former government chief whip, leaves his home on January 21, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.