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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.