This article is an extended version of one that appeared in the January issue of Total Politics. To read other interviews from the 25 club feature, click here
When you came in your first term was hectic – we had the poll tax, the downfall of Thatcher. What was it like coming into parliament in 1987 as a Conservative? We hear all these funny stories about how they didn’t have enough women’s toilets for the amount of female MPs. What was it like then compared to how it is now? How much has it changed?
Well, it is very different now. Then it was more like a cross between a public school and a rather well staffed gentlemen’s club. It is different now. It would have been inconceivable that anyone would go round the House of Commons not wearing a tie whereas now you get people turning up in their gym kit and voting in the lobbies.
I saw someone in their trainers downstairs.
It wouldn’t have happened. You’d have been carted off; people would have assumed that you’d had a nervous breakdown. You’d have been carted off to an asylum. It is very different, I’ll tell you this as well. It was me and Simon Burns had very – who’s also still in the House of Commons, the health minister – he and I had very young children and we wanted them to come in and see us for tea. There were no highchairs in the House of Commons at all and he and I demanded they should get a highchair for the strangers’ cafeteria as it then was called and we got it. There were then two highchairs in the House of Commons for the use of member’s children. That was down to Mr Burns and myself. My children used to come in and see me every Tuesday afternoon for tea. It was fabulous. It was very interesting the reaction that they used to engender from other members of parliament. I remember Tony Benn was absolutely sweet to them, very nice to them, and Greville Janner, both labour MPs, Greville Janner would do conjuring tricks and produce little rubber balls from behind their ears much to their delight. A scream of amusement. They’d come in and run around. There was then just the family’s room really, which still exists, which was available for them. That was one difference. Another difference was that the power of the whips was even greater than it is today. The whips basically determined your life. If you got on the wrong side of the whips you were in real trouble whereas that is not so true today. In those days the whips really were the prefects of the House of Commons and that has loosened now for the better. Of course I have broken service so although I came in ‘87 I went out in ‘97 and came back in ‘01. Very sweetly when he had the 20 year celebration we had a dinner and they very sweetly allowed me to come although I’ve broken service and Mrs Thatcher came along to the dinner and was wonderful. I went up to her sand said Prime Minister you won’t remember me but you will remember my old dad, David Mitchell. She didn’t recognise everyone in the room but she said oh yes you’re David’s boy, how is he and his wine? My father was a wine merchant so she definitely remembered him. It was a wonderful evening which I’ll never forget because on the one hand she was, when I first arrived here she was a Goddess really. When she passed me in the corridor I would stand rigidly to attention at the side and hope that she’d go away and not ask me for my views on the latest money supply figures whereas when we saw her she was obviously much older, much more frail, but still had those extraordinary eyes. It was wonderful to see her although sad in one way to see that she was much, much older and more frail and not the sort of iron lady who I remembered and respected so much when I was first a backbencher.
You talked a bit about the whips there – you were a government whip in the Major government – you said “the trouble is if you spend a long time as whip the iron of cynicism starts to corrode your soul”. How did your experiences in the Major government inform that view?
Well I think that being the development secretary as I now am is very much a sunshine job. You go in every morning to your department and work out what you can do to make life better for the poorest in the world. Being a whip has a darker side to it because you’re dealing with human nature and although I wouldn’t discuss the workings of the whips office when I was in it because whipping, as stripping, is best done in private, nevertheless you’re dealing with people’s strengths and their weaknesses as a whip. Whips are engaged in ensuring that the government gets it business, that’s what the governments’ whips office is there to do. So in a way if you’re job is to secure the passage of the slaughter of the first born bill your job is to think up good reasons why there are too many first born. It is a job that is very specific to make sure the government gets its business. I enjoyed it enormously. The Maastricht whips office, where we had votes at three o’clock in the morning which we won by two or three, it was the very essence of whipping, helping the government to get its business and very, very testing indeed. We only lost one vote, which we then reversed ion a no confidence vote the next day. It was that whip’s office which kept the Major government afloat. Some of my closest friends in the world come from serving in the government whips office between 1992 and 1995, which was extraordinarily difficult but in whips terms was probably the most successful whips office there’s eve been.
You’re the founder of the Project Umubano. How important are projects like that. Should we be upping our international aid commitments or is it about projects like that? Is it about money or is it being more about being proactive and going and doing something?
If you ask people – we’ve just conducted some polling – if you ask people how much public expenditure they think goes on aid they’ll tell you about 18%. If you ask them what it should be it averages out at 7.8% but the reality is it’s 1.1% so we actually spend far less on overseas development than most people think we spend and much, much less than most people think we should spend actually, it’s quite interesting. Project Umubano, it does three things. First is that it makes a tiny, tiny bit of difference to a country that has been to hell and back and I don’t mean to exaggerate the extent of that but it makes a contribution in a very poor country, secondly for the people who go it is a life changing experience. It was certainly a life changing experience for me. If you talk to most of the volunteers, there’s something like 60 MPs in the House of Commons today who’ve been on Project Umubano, they’ll tell you, I think, that it’s extremely enjoyable, very worthwhile and that it changed their lives. It changed my life. The third reason, which in many ways is the most important, is that it means within the Conservative Party there are a carder of people who feel passionate about development, and care deeply about it, but who really know what works and what doesn’t work in a very poor country because they’ve been and seen at first hand and engaged with people. They’ve seen it firsthand what works and what doesn’t work in a very poor country and that means that they are passionate and engaged and supportive and knowledgeable about development so it has changed the Conservative Party in terms of development quite a bit. It draws a lot of its inspiration, the Prime Minister is very passionate about development, we had a reception at Downing Street to celebrate five years of Project Umubano and looking around there I thought to myself there is no other activity of any other political party in Britain which year after year attracts more and more younger and committed people to it. There’s not much in politics that attracts each year more people and younger people. Project Umubano does.
What has the mood been like in the cabinet recently after the EU rebellion?
The mood? We move on from all these things. The cabinet is curiously both a bunch of people who are united and get on well. I’ve often wondered why this is. It’s partly because with the Liberal Democrats we know that we’re not the same party and we expect to disagree on a lot of things, therefore we disagree with great courtesy because we understand we’re working together and we have disagreements. I think this really meant that this is a group of politicians and a group of ministers who are courteous and respectful of others. It’s a metric of the coalition which i think is very interesting and extremely helpful and you know with the Liberal Democrats because we expect to disagree and because we’re aware of disagreements that we handle those disagreements much better in a way than parties do within themselves.
The row within the Conservative Party over Europe, is that going to go away? How’s it going to end because it has been going on for so long?
It’s very, very different from what it used to be. I remember I went into the chamber the other day and I saw Bill Cash intervening on Bernard Jenkins in the European debate and all the years fell away. I thought oh my goodness this is exactly like the Maastricht debates. I had to go and have a stiff drink to recover but actually it wasn’t like that. The party has grown up and is much more sensible now about Europe, it is very, very different from the 90s. We now understand how toxic obsessing about Europe can be, but equally they are very important tissues and I think the party should trust the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer who are both sceptical about many aspects of Europe, but who believe as William Hague so memorably put it that we should be in Europe but not ruled by Europe. I think that the party can trust the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to get us to the right place on this.
You were saying the whips were a lot stronger. If the whips were as strong as they used to be would this rebellion have happened do you think?
I don’t think that’s how it works. I think that this was not a motion which would change anything because it was this new backbench arrangement but I think it was important for the party to set a clear lead about what it expected and that’s why the whip was put on it. I think the party has learnt some lessons from that, I think everyone has learnt some lessons from that experience and we move on.
You’ve worked in two professions - I understand you used to work in banking, and obviously in politics, two of the most unpopular professions in recent years. Do they deserve the unpopularity they’ve got, the banking and political sectors?
I got an email from one of my constituents which said “Dear Mr Mitchell, I note that you are both a politician and a banker. Do you have any plans to become an estate agent?” Making exactly the point you’ve just made. I think that politics is an honourable profession, I think it’s a good thing that the public should express some scepticism about politicians their motives. It makes for a healthy national politics. But in my experience in the House of Commons politicians of all parties do actually go the extra mile for their constituents. You see it too in what you hear people saying in constituencies. What they say is “politicians they’re all a complete shower. Oh but our one here isn’t too bad. He sorted out my Auntie Floss’ housing benefits so he’s not too bad but the rest of them are all frightful”. You do hear that in constituencies. I think that a lot of MPs work very hard and get little credit for it so that’s the position on MPs. On bankers i have long believed there’s a huge correction coming to the pay and privileges of the city and i think we are, at the moment, in the midst of that correction.
How can we put back trust into our institutions? They like their own but they think all other MPs are bad. How can we put trust back in?
I don’t think we should get these things too out of proportion. A healthy scepticism of politicians is not to be discouraged too much in the wider interest and if you look back at the nineteenth century Gillray cartoons you’ll see that politicians were despised and detested in those days. A healthy dose of scepticism from the public. We shouldn’t over-exaggerate the extent to which it is much worse now than in the nineteenth century.
Is it ever going to be a popular profession? Is there always going to be that cynicism about MPs about MPs and the political sphere as a whole?
I think making these judgements in the aftermath of the expenses scandal – we’re too close to all of that to engage in a real judgement about politics and the profession of politics at this point.
You were saying earlier you were out of parliament from 1997-2001. Given how unpopular the Conservative Party were at that time what did you think your chances were of being re-elected? Were you hopeful that it was going to just be on term that you were out or did you think it might take longer?
When I left I was very unclear for quite a long period of time about whether I was going to come back or not and eventually I had dinner with my old friend William Hague, who was the leader of the party at the time, and he said to me “listen you can’t go on frivolously biking around London and making money, you should come back”. I sort of thought he was right to the extent that i needed either to try and run something or go back into politics and I decided to try and get back into politics and then to my extraordinary good fortune the people of Sutton Coldfield selected me as their candidate and subsequently elected me as their MP. When I came back into the Commons in ’01 I was very struck by what a completely different house it was to the one that I had left. I didn’t really enjoy myself at all for the first two or three years I was back, and wondered why I had come back in some ways. But then when Michael Howard took over the party I came back onto the front bench and I started to enjoy myself again. The one thing that kept me going in the first three years here, which were very difficult year for the Conservative Party ’01-’04, was in Sutton Coldfield which I got to know obviously a new constituency, having been a representative before, it was not all entirely strange to me and I spent those years really getting to know and understand the issues in Sutton Coldfield and I’m incredibly glad I had that opportunity to serve for my constituency, understand what serving my constituents really meant which I did everything I could do to learn about and pursue in those early years when the House of Commons was really quite an unhappy place.
You say William Hague said to you you can’t keep frivolously biking around London. What was it that really made you want to come back? What is it that really draws you to politics? What is it about being an MP that made you want to come back and fight another election?
Well I fear rather like being a teacher or a priest it’s in my blood because my father was an MP and there are two others in the family in the last 150 years who have served in the House of Commons although the first two were Liberals so I suppose to some extent that makes the Mitchells a coalition type family.
So you’re well placed to be in the coalition? You’ve got the family history to deal with it.
Maybe it’s in my blood.
It’s been said you have “all the right connections for a Tory MP”. Regardless of how many women, female MPs, how many state school MPs, do you honestly think the Conservative Party is ever going to shake that reputation of the public school, male, white, middle aged MP?
It’s completely changed. David Cameron has modernised the party and made it look far more like the people we seek to represent. It’s a big change and it’s not been an immediate change but i think he deserves great credit for having led the party to a new place where we are much more representative of the country as it is. That was not the case in the past.
Although it clearly has changed, in the public’s view do you think the Conservative Party will ever shake that, even if it’s just an undertone?
I would argue that not only can we get rid of it we have got rid of it would be my argument.
You’ve recently been in Burma. How optimistic are you about Burma’s future? Is it the dawn of a new era? How do you think it’s going to play out?
I think that there’s something very interesting happening in Burma and it may well be the glimmerings of a new dawn but it is too early to be sure. I was able to give the message really to the president and the vice president, the vi8ce president is the leading hard liner, and the speaker of the parliament is the leading reformer, that if they make the changes which they look as if they are contemplating the international community with Britain in the lead will respond in a big hearted and a fulsome way to help Burma move itself from a very dark place where it has been now for nearly a generation, into the modern world. I hope that they will do that. Aung San Suu Kyi is the hope and the inspiration of the people of Burma, as I saw when I went with her to visit a school where thousands upon thousands of people turned up to see her. She represents the hopes of this generation. I profoundly hope that she will be able to have the opportunity to fulfil those hopes.
Was it hard to get a visa?
No, I went there four and a half years ago where I had a very difficult visit and not only did they give me a visa but they gave the BBC, journalists from the Daily Telegraph a visa, along with photographers and they gave us all access to the capital city and everything that we asked to do they were very accommodating about. That in itself shows a very big change.
Who is the best Conservative Party leader you’ve served under?
They’ve all been good in one way or another. Mrs Thatcher was just an extraordinary leader but i was a very junior MP when she was prime minister and as I said she was a goddess. John Major’s sheer decency shone out as he led the party at an extremely difficult stage in our party’s history. William Hague, he picked up the ball at a time when it was absolutely impossible. He could have walked on water and it would not have worked for the Conservative Party at that stage. Very heavily defeated after a long period in power. I think William did absolutely magnificently but he was doomed from the start. Probably some of my happiest days in the House of Commons have been under David Cameron’s leadership. International development is by far the most interesting job I’ve ever had in politics. I’m passionate about it because our generations now can make more of a difference to the plight of the poorest and most disadvantaged in the world that any previous generation’s ever had the opportunity to do. I really want to see us seize that opportunity and deliver on it as a government. Spending my time in opposition working out what we would do if we ever had the privilege of being in power and now being in power and doing it. Those have been the happiest times I’ve had in the House of Commons. Although being in whips office from 1992-1995 comes pretty close.
Is there any lingering ambitions, a job you’d like to do, a constituency issue you want to get sorted?
There are lots of constituency issues on which I campaign and press and as a member of the cabinet although you’re not able to speak in the House of Commons you have other opportunities to make your point. I never forget that I am sent to Westminster by the good people of Sutton Coldfield who have been generous enough to return me with ever increasing majorities at every election. I never forget that it’s them who I serve. The truth is the job of development secretary, for me, is the job I have really wanted to. I woke up every morning for five years in opposition hoping I would have that chance so I can truthfully say that is the job I want.