When Andrew Mitchell was passing through Heathrow Airport recently, he overheard a fellow passenger correctly identify him as the Secretary of State for International Development. Actually, what the curious stranger said was: “Isn’t that the geezer that’s giving all our money away to India?”
Most politicians are flattered to be recognised (surveys frequently show that the vast majority of people draw a blank at anyone below the rank of prime minister or chancellor) but the accusation of squandering taxpayers’ money on handouts to foreigners is one that Mitchell spends a lot of time rebutting.
“When people say charity begins at home I always say: ‘You’re absolutely right, but it doesn’t stop there.’ I think we have to be extremely sensitive at a very difficult time, when people are seeing their disposable income constricted and life is tough,” Mitchell says. “For under 1 per cent of national income, this is a very significant investment in our future prosperity and our future security as well as the future prosperity of some of the poorest in the world.”
Mitchell has been refining variants of this argument since 2005 when Michael Howard, the then Conservative leader, asked him to shadow the ministerial portfolio he now holds. His office at the Department for International Development (DfID), at the Victoria end of Westminster, is packed with the paraphernalia accrued from many years inhabiting the brief. One wall is dominated by a map of the world. Books on development, conflict resolution and aid strategy spill off most surfaces, often pushing aside or adorned with flags, icons and African sculptures that testify to a globetrotting portfolio.
The impression of a man comfortably settled in his government nook is reinforced by the way the Secretary of State pads across the spacious office in his socks to greet me. The rest of the look – navy suit, pale blue silk tie – is the more conventional uniform of Conservative cabinet minister. I notice, among the exotic souvenirs on a coffee table in the corner, a nutcracker that doubles as a Margaret Thatcher action figure.
Mitchell first entered parliament at the age of 31 in the Thatcher landslide victory of 1987, when David Cameron was still at university. He was not an early convert to the charms of the current Prime Minister, choosing to run the leadership campaign of Cameron’s defeated rival David Davis. But Mitchell is no firebrand. He is too studiously polite to seem hectoring. Yet he is keen to identify something pointedly Conservative in the manner in which government overseas largesse is now disbursed. It involves, he says, a greater emphasis on using aid to nurture the private sector in developing countries and a more rigorous process of auditing where the money goes.
“To be fair, Labour did a good job,” he says. “We are taking it a stage further. We’re focusing more on results and outcomes. There are no more day trips to Maputo by Gordon Brown to announce half a billion pounds for primary education. Our focus is on how many schools you build, how many teachers you train and how many kids get a quality education.” DfID is piloting an aid-by-results scheme in Ethiopia and Rwanda. It will trigger an increase in financial support when benchmarks are met in numbers of children at school – specifically girls going to school – and exams successfully sat.
Murmurs in the ranks
The mantra, steered several times into our conversation, is the pursuit of “100 pence of value from every hard-earned taxpayer’s pound” spent on aid. It is easy to understand the urgency of getting that message across. There is a hum of disapproval in the Conservative Party, rising to a roar of protest in some sections of the media, over the decision to “ring-fence” Mitchell’s departmental budget, protecting it from the deep cuts administered as part of the government’s deficit reduction programme.
The Queen’s Speech in May reaffirmed the intention to spend 0.7 per cent of national income annually on aid, but a coalition pledge
to enshrine that target in law was dropped – apparently to avoid antagonising Tory sceptics. “Let’s make the journey,” is Mitchell’s gnomic explanation when I mention that aid charities were disappointed.
A criticism he rebuts more fluently is that the Conservative commitment to aid stems from Cameron’s efforts to “modernise” the party while it was in opposition. Charity to the world’s poor, like husky rides in the Arctic, Cameron’s critics said, was a device to “decontaminate” the mean-spirited Tory brand.
“It’s really insulting to say this is just about detoxifying the Conservative Party,” Mitchell retorts. He cites the example of Project Umubano, a Conservative-run “social action” programme in Rwanda and Sierra Leone that was set up in 2007 and takes batches of MPs, activists and party staff out to do voluntary work. Participation was initially seen as a fast-track route for ambitious party hacks to show their dedication to the Cameron agenda. Now in its sixth year, Umubano, according to Mitchell, has become an established emblem of Conservative priorities. “There is a deep passion and commitment to international development in the party,” he says.
The commitment to aid spending, I note, is still seen by some in the party as a distraction from the mainstream Conservative agenda and symptomatic of a whole complex of metropolitan, “modernising” fixations, such as gay marriage . . . “I’m a supporter of gay marriage,” Mitchell interrupts. “If you look at the polling that’s been done, every cohort is in favour of gay marriage apart from the over-65s. If you explain to the over-65s that it’s civil marriage – not inflicting a view on the church – there is a narrow majority in favour.”
But it is an issue that causes grief for Tory MPs at the grass-roots level. Some complain that coalition support for gay marriage cost it seats in the May local elections. Clearly the Cameron project has not worked out as anticipated, has it? Mitchell puts all the government’s difficulties down to economic uncertainty and the normal political cycle: “Midterm has arrived with a vengeance. It took a long time. Many of us couldn’t really understand why it was taking so long; it was like pulling a brick on an elastic.”
He knows what bad political turbulence feels like, having served in John Major’s government as it fell apart in the mid-1990s. “Does this feel like ’92-’97, when I was a junior minister, strapped to the mast in a force-ten gale? It doesn’t. During the local elections there were times when it was tiptoeing on to that territory.”
There is another parallel. Major was finished by Europe, or more precisely by the divisions that European issues opened up in the Tory ranks. Perhaps it is the memory of those battles that makes Mitchell deeply reticent on the subject, though it dominates the political agenda. When I ask a long question about the European Union, I get the impression he is fighting an urge to let rip. “My special adviser is having an early heart attack,” he jokes, a little mirthlessly. I give assurances that my aim isn’t to provoke. There is a long pause.
“What I will say is this: whenever you have a bunch of politicians, they will always try to accrue power to themselves. That is a process that has been going on for years in the European Union and I think it has reached a point now, with everything that is going on, where people are questioning absolutely what this is all about.” Does he mean questioning the euro or questioning membership of the EU? “The single currency has brought it into sharp relief. And thank God for John Major who negotiated the opt-out.” There follows a long and florid paean to former Conservative leaders and their euro-prescience. It feels like a filibuster.
So has the time come to ask the British people if they still want to be part of the European project? There is an even longer pause. “That’s a very interesting question for another day.”
It is clear that no further deviation from the topic of international development will be indulged. So we finish off where we started, on the question of persuading people that overseas aid is a good use of public money in austere times. “Britain is vaccinating a child, over the term of this parliament, every two seconds and saving a child’s life every two minutes from diseases that none of our children die from,” says Mitchell, evangelical exuberance restored.
“These things are being achieved with much less money than the public think. If you ask people how much money they think goes on overseas aid, it’s 17.8 per cent of public expenditure. If you ask them what the right figure is, they come out at about 7.5 per cent. What is the actual figure? One point one per cent. So we are achieving these results with one-seventeenth of what people think we are spending and one-seventh of what they think we should be spending . . . We have to make the point every day.”