A review of “Beyond A Fringe”, the memoir of Conservative politician Andrew Mitchell

In 1971, for the first time I read a memoir by a Conservative politician: “The Art Of The Possible” by Rab Butler. As a lifelong member of the Labour Party, it has taken me exactly 50 years to repeat this experience. My ‘excuse’ is that my son – who works in the international development sector and has recently collaborated with Andrew Mitchell on matters of mutual interest – attended the launch of “Beyond A Fringe” and brought me back a (signed) copy.

I have to say that I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read, enlivened by plenty of amusing anecdotes and some self-deprecating observations. It is, however, a strange political memoir: first, because it is not actually that political (which should win it a wider readership than many more ideological treatises) and, second, because the work exhibits a major bifurcation in which the writer becomes something of a different politician and indeed a different person. 

Let us start with the politics. 

Strangely there is no discussion of why Mitchell wanted to go into politics and why he choose the Conservative Party for his ideological home. It is true that his father was a Conservative MP but the book contains very few references to his parents. It is almost as if his classic upper middle-class life – prep school, public school (Rugby), Oxbridge (history at Cambridge), army (a short service commission) and the City (the investment bankers Lazard) – led him to Centre-Right politics without the need for thought.

There is a fascinating chapter on his three years in the Whips’ Office (whipping is so important to British politics but rarely illuminated), yet this period was all about cajoling fellow Tories to vote with the Major Government and there is barely any talk of the actual policies they were being asked to support. There is then his first rung of the ministerial ladder when, as a junior minister at the Department of Social Security, he was responsible for the infamous Child Benefit Agency. He explains how he promoted managerial changes to improve the working of the agency, but there is no consideration of the government’s role in tacking family poverty. 

The best period of Mitchell’s career was his seven and a half years as Opposition spokesperson on International Development and Secretary of State at the Department for International Development (DfID). He was industrious and committed in both roles and can rightly be proud of his record. But when he talks of developing “a centre-right British international development policy”, it seems to me that his changes were more about efficiency and focus than about ideology – which is as it should be.

Since he ceased to be a minister, Mitchell has worked especially hard on three areas: international development, human rights and civil liberties. Yet again these are not issues on which there is an obvious or clear Left/Right divide. 

Now that bifurcation.

Mitchell acknowledges in his preface that “Mine is without question a privileged life”. For decades, everything fell into his lap without too much effort or travail. His epiphany came with his appointment – initially by Michael Howard – to the international development portfolio. He admits “I had little experience of my new brief” and “it was not one of those issues I had contributed to in the House of Commons”.

But he read widely, he consulted extensively, and above all he travelled. In Uganda: “It was my first experience of real poverty”. He was especially moved by what he saw in Rwanda: “Throughout the long journey back to Kigali, I cried for one of the few times in my adult life”. He founded ‘Project Umubano’ – the Kinyarwanda word for friendship – which took Conservative volunteers to Rwanda and acknowledged that “It changed our lives – it certainly changed mine”.

Where Mitchell’s deep involvement in international development humanised him, the shock of ‘Plebgate’ – a contentious altercation with policemen guarding the entrance to 10 Downing Street – humbled him. He admits: “It was my weakness – arrogance, indeed – that started it all off”. It changed him financially (he faced legal bills of around £2 million) and emotionally (he suffered serious depression and sought medical help).

The trauma set the seal on his disenchantment with the Establishment of which he had been a fortuitous member. He writes: “in the process, I found that I’d resigned from the British Establishment”. Indeed the subtitle of his memoirs is: “Tales From A Reformed Establishment Lackey”. In the final chapter, he states: “I have somehow become more internationalist, less Anglocentric, less trustful and less respectful of the organs of the state and generally less certain”

One of the enjoyable features of a political memoir is seeing observations on other politicians. To the surprise of many colleagues and friends, Mitchell supported Boris Johnson when he ran for the Conservative leadership. He does not assert that Johnson is a serial liar, but he does not need to. The inference is unavoidable: Johnson clearly indicated that he would return Mitchell to office (he lied), he agreed to keep DfID as a separate department (he lied), and he promised to stick to the UK commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid (he lied).

Mitchell speaks kindly of both Tony Blair and David Cameron and describes William Hague as “the best Prime Minister we have never had” and Michael Gove as “the cleverest man in the government”. His comrade-in-arms and closest political friend is David Davis. 

As for Mitchell himself, I venture to suggest that he would make a better Foreign Secretary than any member of the current Conservative Cabinet.


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