His CV reads like a caricature. Prep school, public school, army, Cambridge, investment banking, Conservative MP, government whip, cabinet minister. Andrew Mitchell has passed through many of the institutions of the Tory establishment. One of the several merits of this highly engaging memoir is the light it shines, often entertainingly and sometimes shockingly, on how ghastly that establishment can be.
His prep school, which would later be attended by one Boris Johnson, was run by a casually sadistic headteacher with a “paedophile disposition”. On one occasion, this brutal tyrant sends for the collection of canes that he keeps in his study and proceeds to beat the entire school. Only Mitchell escapes because he is absent on an errand when the mass thrashing starts and then hides in a lavatory. The headteacher subsequently brags that the exercise has done wonders for his golf handicap. Mitchell says he doesn’t think the cruelty of his early schooldays did him any long-term damage, but tells us that his wife, a doctor, disagrees.
His father, also a Tory MP, was in the wine trade. During school holidays, he would work at El Vino, an establishment in Fleet Street near the Royal Courts of Justice, which refused to serve women at the bar. “Sexism dressed up as old-world courtesy.” When the Equal Opportunities Commission took El Vino to court it was difficult to find a judge to try the case who was not a customer. At Rugby school, he captains the third XV, “a bunch of thugs” who unleash so much violence during one match that no fewer than five members of the opposing team have to be carried off the pitch injured.
We are most definitely not in a woke era when he becomes president of the Cambridge Union and stages a “celebrity funny debate”, which provokes riotous protests and now makes him cringe, on the motion “a woman’s place is in the harem”. The Commons he joined as an MP in 1987 was not diverse. “The club-like atmosphere was epitomised by the smoking room, where groups of male Tory and Labour MPs would pass the evening drinking and smoking and voting as required.”
John Major puts him in the whips’ office and there’s an engrossing chapter about the darker arts deployed by parliamentary business managers to bribe and bully MPs to vote the way the government wants them to. “A whip is not moral or immoral but amoral. If the government decides to proceed with the slaughter of the first-borns bill, it is the whips’ job to secure the necessary votes by explaining that there are too many first borns around, fettering the chances of the second- and third-born children. So the public good is clearly served by their removal.” Sometimes, the intimidation of backbenchers took physical form. The burliest of Major’s whips was capable of lifting a potential rebel off his feet by his tie and lapels. More often, they got their way using the promise of promotion or the lure of an honour.
The best of his time in government was as international development secretary during David Cameron’s premiership. The “compassionate conservatism” that Cameron promised before he got to power was not much evident in a domestic programme characterised by austerity. Mitchell has the distinction of making it more manifest in the global arena and writes about development with authentic passion and evident expertise. The Tories committed themselves to the UN target to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international aid and he focused the department’s work on improving the life chances of the world’s most vulnerable by tackling disease and hunger and addressing reproductive health and education, especially schooling for girls. I think he is correct to contend that Britain, building on work begun by New Labour, earned a reputation as a superpower of soft power. At a time when bashing civil servants is a lazy habit among many Tory politicians, it is refreshing to find him praising them. He arrived at the department wary of the officials and in possession of an ink pad and “BOLLOCKS” stamp to be used when confronted by bureaucratic obfuscation and obstruction. He never felt the need to wield it. The “civil servants were generally so clever and knowledgable that they’d have been more likely to use it on me than the reverse”.
And then, very suddenly, his world falls apart. Cameron persuades him to become chief whip and soon afterwards he is involved in a brief contretemps with the police officers guarding the Downing Street gates. It now seems utterly disproportionate and grotesquely unfair that this 45-second altercation, which became known as “Plebgate”, terminated his ministerial career. It also left him with a £2m bill in legal costs while four police officers were sacked for gross misconduct, one going to prison. It is an object lesson in the fragility of political lives. One minute he is a well-regarded member of the cabinet with a career on a smoothly upward trajectory, the next he is eviscerated by the media, thrown under the bus by No 10 and flooded with hostile emails, including death threats. “I could not sleep. I stopped eating and started smoking again… On several days I simply could not get out of bed.” He tells us that he “ceased to function properly” and “felt like a hunted animal”, but there was “scant sympathy for the well-heeled, arrogant Tory toff portrayed in the press”. Though he doesn’t say it quite this explicitly, his account suggests that he came extremely close to being psychologically destroyed.
Mitchell has subsequently rebuilt himself as a strong voice for his causes from the Tory backbenches and led the recent revolt against the government’s savage cuts to the aid budget. There’s a piquant irony here, for he confesses to some responsibility for helping to create prime minister Johnson. He got on to the approved candidates list in the 1990s only because Mitchell, who was in charge of the process, insisted on Johnson’s inclusion against the objections of others on the vetting team who thought him a cynical chancer. I think it is fair to say they have been proved completely right about that.
Many years later, when Johnson makes his second and successful run to be leader, Mitchell joins the campaign team, letting down his close friend Jeremy Hunt. His wife is “furious”, the reaction of his children “unprintable”. Old friends are enraged. He justifies himself on the grounds that the Tory party could only be led by a Brexiter by this stage. He also believed he had extracted a solemn promise from Johnson that the other man would honour the aid pledge and preserve the Department for International Development. “DfID is safe,” swears Johnson and Mitchell foolishly chooses to believe this lie. The government has since vaporised the department and dishonoured the aid commitment, “destroying at a stroke a key aspect of Global Britain”.
This absorbing memoir, which deftly moves between the comedies and the tragedies of the political life, concludes with some tips on how to progress as a backbencher and prosper as a minister. “Above all, look after your private office and they will look after you. One minister so antagonised and mistreated his officials that when the moment came to deliver an important speech in the House of Commons, he turned over page seven to see the words ‘You’re on your own, minister’.”
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer
• Beyond a Fringe:Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey by Andrew Mitchell is published by Biteback (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply