Conservative MP for The Wrekin Mark Pritchard.
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Can Cameron bring back powers from EU? "I'm cautiously pessimistic", says Mark Pritchard MP

The senior Conservative MP and Eurosceptic Mark Pritchard discusses the EU, secret societies, adoption and animal welfare.

“It would be nice to be invited into Government, but my social mobility ended the day David Cameron walked into Downing Street,” says senior Conservative MP and self-described "council house lad" Mark Pritchard with a waggish smile.

A leading Eurosceptic and architect of government rebellions on EU issues, for the moment he seems content with No 10’s promise of an in/out referendum.

In a state of anticipation about the future of Britain’s membership of the EU, he even believes that Cameron himself may campaign to leave if certain powers – Pritchard will not be pinned down on which – are not restored to the UK.

"Let’s wait and see. I’m confident of the Prime Minister’s negotiation skills”, he says diplomatically. He is less confident about the ability of others to "fully appreciate" those skills, adding: "I’m cautiously pessimistic about the European leaders’ willingness to repatriate powers."

Sitting on the House of Commons Terrace next to the Thames on a sunny afternoon, Pritchard – “Pritch” to his friends – wears gold-rimmed aviators and a nautical tie. He sips his eponymous cocktail: a refreshing, non-alcoholic mixture of cranberry juice, soda water, lime and ice known to the staff of the Strangers’ Bar as the Pritchard Special.

He has shown a canny knack for making his name known since his arrival in Parliament in 2005 as the MP for The Wrekin in Shropshire, his election itself a key mile post in his ascent from humble beginnings.

Pritchard spent the first five years of his life in an orphanage in Herefordshire. Far from a lonely, sterile institution, he describes “a grand Victorian home with a large, sweeping staircase”, happily recording “nothing but positive memories”.

He believes that, like those who looked after him, “99 per cent of carers doing a great job every hour of every day”, but he is passionate about further improving care for children under the protection of the state.

“There are too many who leave school with far too few qualifications, who end up in the criminal justice system, who end up on the streets homeless, committing antisocial behaviour, falling into prostitution.”

Adoption needs to be speeded up, and sweeping reforms of social work and training for it are needed, he declares.

As a young man, he toyed with the idea of the church. “In the end the bishop said I have too many vices and not enough virtues, so there was only one place to go: politics.”

So he did not become a minister of the church. Neither, it might be added, has he been appointed one in Parliament.

He was a chief player in the rebellion against the government, calling for a real-terms EU budget cut in 2012. He sums up the affair with an air of satisfaction: “The government whipped against it. The government lost. It’s now official government policy. So that’s good news.”

He is unrepentant about his former hard-line stance and remains unstinting on the issue on immigration: "We must get back to managing our borders better. We can make more improvements, but that will require treaty change."

He concedes, however: “I think when it comes to Europe, the more the backbenchers and No 10 work collaboratively, the better for everybody.”

Reflecting on his softer side, animal welfare is another of Pritchard’s great passions. A profound animal lover, although he is keen to point out he is a “carnivore”, he is still in mourning from his “annus horribilis” last year, during which his two beloved Schnauzers, aged 13 and 16, both died.

Earlier this year he hoped to bring a ban against animals appearing in British circuses into legislation. Although it did not make the Queen’s speech, as was rumoured, he is determined not to give up.

He has also crusaded against the sale of animals on the internet and campaigned for a ban on keeping primates as pets. He also wants greater protection for Britain’s bird populations. “This is all political low-hanging fruit.”

His love for animals is informed by a Christian-Judeo world view, he explains, adding: “I make no apology talking about God. I think most people out there are encouraged by anybody who believes in something greater than themselves. It’s good to remember we’re mortals as politicians.”

His faith also informs his views on abortion. As Vice-Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, he wants to see the abortion termination term-limit reduced from 24 weeks by at least two weeks and reviewed each Parliament as scientific advances render foetuses viable at earlier stages of pregnancy.

Last year Pritchard was one of the few MPs to defend proposals by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to raise MPs salaries by £7,500 to £75,000.

He explains: “We don’t just want multimillionaires in the house, although good for them; and we don’t want the other extreme – political anoraks and hangers on. We need people who are from the middle, from the private and public sector, professional people, middle managers, business people from all size of business.

He adds: “I think people who have earnt wealth, rather than inherit wealth, know how to spend money a little bit – ”, he checks himself, “differently. Not necessarily better.”

On the subject of money, last autumn Pritchard was accused, following an investigation by The Daily Telegraph, of exploiting foreign contacts to set up business deals.

He says: “The Parliamentary Commissioner decided not even to investigate”, adding with slow annunciation: “I did not lobby”. There was no suggestion in the newspaper reports that he was willing to support business deals in the Commons.

He says he has now moved on, adding: “I’ve got very thick skin, the skin of a rhinoceros.”

A fan of observational humour, Pritchard is an amateur comedian, writing his own sketches. He is currently working on a secret project, which he will only describe as “mainstream”. “This is an appeal to the BBC to call me!” he declares.

An example of his impish sense of humour, Pritchard founded The Old Boys Comprehensive Lunch Club in Westminster – an antidote to the domination of public school parliamentarians. It raised eyebrows among the male public school elite dominating the top echelons of the Conservative party, but he denies intending to “wind up” Old Etonian David Cameron.

Despite its tongue-in-cheek name, Pritchard maintains that the "secret society" makes an important point about social mobility. “It was to show the Conservatives span the working class, the underclass in my case, through to more privileged backgrounds... We are a palace of varieties,” he says.

So does it have passwords, handshakes, rituals? “It’s so secret I can’t even tell you that,” he grins, before adding, “What I can say is that it’s more beef burgers and chips than Bilderburgers.”

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.


Photo: Getty Images
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.