This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
The international development secretary works hard at getting the detail right in everything he does, but possesses a certain debonair charm.
Even though 20 minutes late for our interview in his Commons office, he is forgiven within seconds as I’m offered a rather nice drink from the fridge, perfectly chilled.
We meet him at a time when he is mourning the death of his beloved dog, Molly, a “beautiful” Welsh Springer spaniel. Some say dogs reflect their owners, and in 2009, Molly won the Westminster Dog of the Year award for her (I quote from the judges) “excellent condition and temperament” and because she “stood out particularly because she is the glue of her family”.
The loss of their beloved dog has hit the family quite hard. “She was 10, and she went downhill very quickly,” says a downcast Mitchell. “People in Britain get very sentimental about their pets. One shouldn’t equate it to the awful tragedies some families face, but for the Mitchell family this was quite a difficult experience.” This is a man who loved his dog, but who also has over 70 pictures of his children and family festooning his office walls.
Politics has always been a part of Mitchell’s life. His father, David Mitchell, became a Conservative MP when Andrew was just seven years old. Indeed, father and son served together in the Commons between 1987 and 1997. Like most proud fathers, he has never let his son rest on his laurels. To the hilarity of both sides of the House, David Mitchell berated his son over the performance of the Child Support Agency, when Mitchell Junior held responsibility under John Major. Even today, his 84-year-old father sends disobliging articles cut from the Daily Mail, annotated with question marks and underlinings.
In 2010, Mitchell had the opportunity to serve his third Conservative PM. Jon Snow of Channel 4 News said that Mitchell was “unquestionably the best-prepared secretary of state… and that everyone in the sector knew of his commitment”. It is undoubtedly true that Mitchell is highly regarded by organisations in the sector, possibly because when in opposition he took the time to listen carefully and learn.
Yet he has had problems with both the press and members of his own party. It hasn’t been difficult for the press to find Tory MPs who are willing to criticise both the policy and Mitchell personally. But Mitchell is clear: “There is much support in the parliamentary party for international development. At oral questions and in development debates there are more Conservative members than Labour in the chamber, and that is the first time in my political career. But there will always be a few avowedly opposed.”
Don’t some of his colleagues believe charity begins at home? “It’s true,” Mitchell agrees. “Charity does begin at home, but it doesn’t end there. It’s part of the British DNA to be generous to people caught in awful disasters. There are a percentage at either end that will support or oppose aid, come what may, but quite a lot of people in the middle require reassurance that this money is really well spent.”
He sidesteps a question about whether colleagues are envious of his ring-fenced budget by pointing out the duty imposed on him to ensure value for money and to spend every British taxpayer’s pound to deliver 100 pence of value on the ground. But he is absolutely clear that his budget has not, nor will be, under threat.
Under Mitchell, the use of British aid has been fundamentally altered. It focuses on results, on economic growth and the countries struggling with conflicts. Somalia, he says, is a strong example of why offering British aid is so important to people at home. “Somalia is an exporter of terrorism, drugs, piracy, disease and people. People leave Somalia for a better life. If you can tackle the causes of poverty and dysfunctionality [there], it is much cheaper and more cost-effective than to tackle the symptoms, as we are in Afghanistan.”
He also counters the criticisms made of aid to India. The aid and development programme is part of a wider partnership with India that the prime minister has re-energised, Mitchell argues. “We won’t be in India as a development partner forever. We’re walking the final mile with them,” he explains. “If we help India now, in the future it will be an enormous purchaser of British goods. By assisting India with development, we’re investing in our children’s and grandchildren’s prosperity. It’s an incredibly good investment.”
Mitchell also believes that his department’s work in Libya has proven effective despite criticism that it hadn’t learned the lessons of post-conflict planning.
He points to the stabilisation team deployed quickly to Benghazi, the co-ordination with other countries, and that they ensured the police were ready to support law and order. “What we did was a considerable improvement on what went before,” he says.
This could be his message to the previous government, but he stresses that it would be wrong to say that Labour had comprehensively failed in this area.
“In international development, Labour did a lot of good things, and we’re building on and improving on them.” Interestingly, there were only four politicians at his 50th birthday party, and two of them, Geoff Hoon and Charles Falconer, were Labour.
Well-regarded across the House, it would be easy, Mitchell says, to become “a bit up yourself”. He’s worked hard at keeping his feet on the ground. Hence, when seconding the Queen’s Speech in 1992, he took a colleague’s advice to “take the mickey” out of himself.
Constituents also get in on the act: Mitchell recently received an email that read: “Dear Mr Mitchell, I note you are both a politician and a banker. Do you have plans to train as an estate agent?”
What next? The secretary of state is obviously happy in his job, and any change will be decided “above my pay grade”.
Mitchell spent a happy childhood at Ashdown House and then Rugby boarding schools from the age of eight. His father had just become an MP, and boarding school must have offered stability. At Rugby, Mitchell became head of Tudor House, where, it is suggested, he acquired the nickname “Thrasher”.
Mitchell believes this was invented by Private Eye: “… but I was a stern disciplinarian, and those were characteristics I was accused of whilst being a government whip.”
How stern? “I took the view that Tudor House should be competitive; we should win the sports and other competitions,” he explains. “I had a competitive streak and I always wanted the team to do well, but never in a ruthless way.”
From Rugby, Mitchell moved to the Royal Tank Regiment. As a Short Service Limited Commission officer, he was posted abroad at just 19 years old. After one month’s training at Sandhurst and a month at a regimental depot in Dorset, he was shipped off to Cyprus, where he was part of the UN Peacekeeping force responsible for the de facto partition of the island.
Commanding the rear of the convoy, Mitchell and the British moved all the Turks from the Greek part into the north. “This would solidify divisions in the community,” he says, “as I knew that, at grassroots level, Turks there got on well with Greeks. Although there were incidents, these villages largely got on very well with their neighbours.”
Mitchell looks back on the experience as good preparation for his current role, in which he continues to work well with the UN. “I’ve always found, as a minister, my dealings with the UN in complete contrast to the EU.
With the EU, I get off the train in Brussels with an immense goodwill, wanting to be unremittingly positive, yet I leave in a filthy temper, raging at the EU’s inadequacies. When I go to the UN, I arrive pretty sceptical but always leave uplifted, because the UN is an extraordinary organisation. It has complete legitimacy, and although it has frustrations, it undertakes extraordinary work through UNICEF, for example.”
It was difficult, on leaving the army and moving to Jesus College, Cambridge, to readjust to civilian life. Army life left him with an appreciation that he carries with him today. “The British military is fantastic. Its respect for human rights, communities; its ability to soldier in difficult environments is quite unequalled by any other military in the world.”
At Cambridge, Mitchell became president of the Cambridge Union, one of two places where he made enduring friendships. The other was in the Whips’ Office of John Major’s government, where he arrived via Sunderland South (lost) and Gedling (won in 1987). The Whips’ Office MPs formed a “very close bond” in often difficult – even traumatic – circumstances.
“This was one of the outstanding government Whips’ Offices since the war,” Mitchell continues. “We had to keep the government afloat, night after night. We couldn’t have a vote at 3am without making sure we knew where the Ulstermen were. I spent more time in those months with my colleagues in the Whips’ Office than I did with my wife. It was an absolutely extraordinary time. We were winning votes by one, two, or three at 3am.”
One bond formed in the Whips’ Office was with David Davis MP. Today, they’re still close. “I admire David Davis enormously. He’s the pre-eminent example of social mobility in British politics, an inspiration to many people.”
Mitchell ended up running Davis’ campaign against David Cameron for the Conservative Party leadership. At one stage, Davis looked to be a shoo-in, with Cameron at 66-1, but something went wrong. Pragmatically, Mitchell puts it down to the favourite seldom winning leadership elections, but some argue that the close bonds of the successful Whips’ Office of the 1990s were not as close in 2005.
The 2005 intake of Tory MPs, in particular, talk of bullying tactics and verbal threats from some close to Davis. Mitchell responds: “There were allegations of whipping by David’s Whips’ Office mates, but I think that was more a perception than a reality.”
His close relationship with Davis didn’t stop Mitchell turning the air blue with expletives in a tense encounter on the House of Commons terrace, when Davis’ resignation caused a by-election. All Mitchell will say is that “the language exchanged would not be suitable for a family show. David knows I think it was a tremendous error of judgement.”
The outcome of the 2005 leadership election could have been difficult for Mitchell, as it wasn’t certain he and Cameron would get on. Fortunately, things went well from day one, not least on development issues, as both Mitchell and Cameron had closely allied views. By 2010, a clear strategy “with 100 points that we were going to change” had been developed.
In the Conservative Party, Mitchell is quite hard to categorise. He freely admits that he has been “difficult to place politically”. Early on, he was elected as secretary of the Tory One Nation Group, but, on investigation, figures in the group brought him in not least because of his connections with the wine trade (his father had been a wine merchant). Mitchell says himself he was the “One Nation sommelier”.
He also arranged with the Commons authorities to allow the group to bring in wine and pay a tiny corkage charge, an agreement which, unfortunately, ended on his defeat in 1997.
Was he a Thatcherite? He was certainly a huge fan. “To me, she was a goddess,” he says without embarrassment. “When she walked down the corridors, I used to stand stiffly to attention and hope she would pass by. She had a habit of asking difficult questions. In the tea room she would come in and talk about the state of the money supply, which was always a frightening experience.”
But there was genuine affection as well as respect and fear. Mitchell tells the story of how Patrick McLoughlin (now chief whip) and he had worked out that the Conservative Party and government needed to recognise the huge sacrifices made by the Union of Democratic Mineworkers.
They managed to get Thatcher, through her PPS, to dinner in the Members’ Dining Room, just the three of them. “I’ll always remember that evening,” says Mitchell, “because she had just finished giving us her views, when someone came to whisper in her ear. The bomb had gone off on the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie. It was a shocking tragedy for her to take in, and that, of course, was the end of the dinner. However, I’ll never forget that her first thought was to ensure the local MP was informed, and ‘to make sure he is on the plane with me’.”
But while Mitchell believes Thatcher remains the pre-eminent prime minister of his era, he was not such a diehard Thatcherite that he didn’t believe she should have left after 10 years in power. Had she retired earlier, he confides, the Conservative Party “would have avoided what was effectively a nervous breakdown”.
Perhaps closer to a One Nation Tory was John Major. Mitchell admired Major, and believes history will be kind to him, as he was dealt such a difficult hand to play. “If you look back on that government of 1992–97, it achieved an enormous amount and never really got the credit it deserved,” he says.
“Major was a good PM. Every night, we should all go down on our knees and thank God for Major negotiating the opt-out from the single currency. Forget Blair and Brown: Major did that. It was that opt-out that stopped us going into the euro.”
After the 1997 election, with Gedling lost, he drove away from the count. Coming to a crossroads, he saw a fox on the corner, and remembers thinking: “This is a brave new dawn. It’s now safe for foxes to come out under Labour.”
Perhaps it is also a time for this silver fox to have his day in the sun.
Rob Wilson is the Conservative MP for Reading East