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.

 

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.