Andrew Mitchell’s place in political history was secured in 2014 when a High Court libel trial found he had called a police officer at the gates of Downing Street a “pleb”, or something very much like it. His good-humoured memoirs discuss this incident in only the broadest terms, for what he calls legal reasons (the implication is that Mitchell believes he was hard done by, but cannot say so). He would rather be remembered for the cause of overseas development: a substantial part of his book covers the triumphs and frustrations of his work in Africa.
Few political memoirs are worth reading. They are too often self-justificatory, self-aggrandising, dishonest and devoid of literary merit. Mitchell’s is an exception. Although in its heavy anecdotage it reads occasionally like an after-dinner speech, he is unafraid to admit mistakes and has narrative skill. He has been a Conservative MP since 1987 (with a four-year gap after the Blair landslide in 1997), a period in which the calibre of those in public life has, by general consent, sunk. Mitchell retails the usual stories of his class and generation: sadistic prep-school masters, character development at public school – for better or for worse – and then Cambridge, where he confirmed a taste for politics (his father was an MP) and became president of the debating union. Before university, he served in the army, and later joined a merchant bank, despite, as he tells us, failing O-level maths. Thus was life before the financial Big Bang for those of the establishment class, and Mitchell completed the circuit by becoming a Tory MP, a whip and a cabinet minister.
I must declare an interest, which is to have known Mitchell, and liked him, for around 40 years. When I arrived at Cambridge a year after he went off to Lazard bank, he was still much remarked upon, and not entirely positively. Like many with strong personalities (those without one have no future in politics), he divides opinion. As one of our friends said to me during “Plebgate”, “he may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard”. He is scrupulously loyal to his friends, and fortunate to have a gifted and accomplished wife – Sharon, a doctor – who is universally admired by those who know her. But he has, over the years, made a less favourable impression on those outside the charmed circle, through what he terms “high-handed” behaviour, including to Commons police and officials, which made “Plebgate” seem credible.
He told me at the time of the row that he had not said “pleb” and I believe him: he is not a liar. Sadly, he had made too many enemies by then, forgetting the old maxim about being careful how one treats people on the way up because one never knows whom one might meet on the way down. He was famed for his ambition, exemplified by his rapid shift from Michael Heseltine to John Major after the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The Plebgate episode cost Mitchell dearly: not just the £2m legal bill, but also a belated loss of naivety about the vileness of high politics, peopled as it is by types who make Mitchell look like Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
He says at the end of his book that he still believes he has much to offer, and he could be right. After a terrible period during Plebgate, when he was treated for depression and made the idiotic decision to sue the Sun for libel, he threw himself into overseas aid and constituency work. In one of the book’s most revelatory passages, he details his role in the rise of Boris Johnson, allowing him in 1993 to join the Tory party candidates list, of which Mitchell was then in charge. (“What the fuck do you mean by putting Boris Johnson on the candidates list?” John Major reportedly asked him.)
Mitchell concludes his reflections on Johnson by recounting how the Prime Minister courted his support – and got it – in 2019, dropping heavy hints about a ministerial job for him that never materialised. Johnson, who enjoys insulting those who have assisted his career, patronises Mitchell by telling him it was “a cause of national indignation and scandal” that he was not in the government, a scandal Mitchell knows it is entirely within Johnson’s power to rectify. Johnson says it “will be addressed in due course”. It can be added to the list of lies. A government with grown-ups such as Mitchell in it would be a vast improvement on the present mess, which is precisely why the Prime Minister is too gutless to have such people around his cabinet table. Mitchell is well out of it.
Simon Heffer writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph
Beyond a Fringe
Biteback, 384pp, £20
This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos