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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.