Andrew Mitchell is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for Sutton Coldfield.
Conservative leadership elections bring out the best and the worst in politicians. I have played a role in three!
The first, John Major’s, was rather successful. The second, William Hague’s, which I had agreed to run, was stillborn because I lost my seat at the vital moment following the Blair landslide. The third, David Davis’s in 2005 was, well…suffice it to say that if we had had the same timetable as that set for the current leadership election, we would probably have won!
For this one, let’s agree on two points:
First, all five of the current contenders are hugely talented, and massive contributors in their different ways. I’ve worked closely in Government with four of them, and have seen for myself just how good they are. Look on, Labour Party, and weep! It’s the Tories with the stand-out talent.
Second, we must consign to the past the harsh defenestration of Boris Johnson. I put him on the Conservative candidates list in 1992, and he has been my friend and neighbour for years. But he’d be the first to acknowledge that British politics is brutal and unfair and played with a very hard ball indeed. He will have moved on already, and so must those of us who were going to give him our support. In politics, you just have to get on with it.
Britain will now leave the European Union. There is not going to be a second referendum. The arguments have been ceaselessly rehearsed. The public have decided and voted. I supported remaining in the European Union – but I have seen and heard the democratic decision of the British people and, as Members of Parliament, we are honour-bound to implement it.
This is probably the most tricky wicket an incoming British Prime Minster has faced since 1940. The European negotiations will be extraordinarily difficult, and the result will have to be sold to an anxious and sceptical public. While not impossible, it would be very difficult for a non-Brexiteer to secure a deal which the British public will accept is the best it can be.
Nor is the answer to create a senior Cabinet post for Brexit. The Government has already appointed the superbly-qualified official Olly Robbins as the senior sherpa. I worked with him on the National Security Council and in Cabinet, and know just how good he is. But when the chips are down, none of the 27 European leaders and senior members of the European Commission are going to negotiate with anyone other than the British Prime Minister. They will want the organ grinder and not the monkey. Only the Prime Minister can do the deal – and it will dominate their agenda.
Michael Gove is the senior Brexiteer who put his country before his close friendship with David Cameron, and who has now reluctantly agreed to stand. Many Conservative MPs have, for years, suggested he was a highly credible candidate be Prime Minister and now, with Brexit hanging over every aspect of British life, he is the man with the conviction, the courage and the capability to secure the best deal for Britain.
And his candidature chimes not only with Britain’s decision on the European Union: one of the biggest problems our country faces is that of social mobility. It was top of David Cameron’s domestic agenda following the election of a progressive One Nation Conservative Government last year. The successful implementation of this agenda is essential for the future of our country.
Gove’s record in Government both as Education and as Justice Secretary is formidable and impressive. He has been addressing the scandal of Britain’s prison service. Churchill once said that the way we treat prisoners and criminals is the measure of “the stored up strength of a nation.” Gove is probably the first senior Minister since Roy Jenkins to grasp the need for radical change, and is getting on with implementing it.
On life chances and on social mobility, the two biggest issues after Europe in British politics today – as well as holding the United Kingdom together – Gove’s vision and energy stands out. His are not the actions of a leader who is happy to accept the status quo. They are the thpse of someone who believes in making the tough and brave decisions to help improve the lives of people from all walks of life. It is the sort of leadership we now need to take us forward as we enter a new chapter in our country’s history.