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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era