Tory Cabinet Minister and chief whip, ANDREW MITCHELL knew all the secrets of the Party’s raging jealousies and sex scandals – and now his memoir will leave Westminster agog as it lays bare the toll of his own downfall
Boris applied to become a Conservative candidate in June 1993. His application was in the first instance to be an MEP rather than an MP — following in the footsteps of his father, Stanley.
I was the Party vice-chairman at the time and responsible for the candidate selection process.
In the interview and pre-meeting at Tory HQ, my only advice to Boris was to take the process deadly seriously and remember that the judges included hard-working local party members who needed to be wooed with care.
Andrew Mitchell, Conservative Party politician arriving at Downing Street, London, on his bike
This was for them their moment of power. As we settled into the parliamentary selection board (PSB), it rapidly became clear that Boris was controversial. Richard Simmonds was the senior MEP assessor at the selection board.
He had already complained that I had renewed Boris’ father Stanley Johnson’s ticket to be a Conservative candidate even though Stanley had resigned as an MEP.
Simmonds had inherited Stanley’s Isle of Wight and Hampshire East seat in the European Parliament in 1984 and regarded him as unreliable.
Richard made it clear at the outset that Boris would join the Conservative Party’s list of candidates ‘over my dead body’.
Throughout the 24-hour process, Boris behaved impeccably. The external assessor deputed to monitor his performance was Ned Dawnay, a Norfolk landowner who had played a key part in the privatisation of British Airways and whom I had known from our City days.
During the group session, where each candidate chose a subject on which to opine to fellow contenders, Boris chose the subject of bananas, with particular reference to EU lunacies, about which he had written copiously, amusingly and inaccurately as a Daily Telegraph journalist — much to the irritation of Prime Minister John Major, against whom his mischievous humour was directed.
From time to time, Boris would suggest that the PM was supporting a Commission proposal that only straight bananas and cucumbers could be sold to the citizens of the European Union.
Just before the final session, Richard Simmonds informed me that the MEPs intended to block Boris’s application and hoped that I would agree. If I did not, he said, the MEPs intended to have the matter addressed by ‘higher authority’.
I suggested he put his reservations to the meeting of the assessors that afternoon.
‘Andrew, I am afraid you need to go and see John Major. He is very concerned that you put Boris on the candidates list. Apparently Boris has enraged him by writing rude copy from Brussels. He takes these things personally’
I opened the meeting to decide on the prospective candidates by saying that we would discuss Boris’s application last. We went through the other 47 relatively quickly, but in the event nearly half the meeting was spent discussing the pros and cons of putting Boris on the list.
Ned Dawnay was firm: Boris was a most impressive applicant; he was clearly a proper Conservative; his intellect, knowledge and energy marked him out; he must be admitted.
Richard Simmonds, supported by the other five MEPs, was adamant: Boris was a cynical journalist, a chancer, a brand not a politician, a less-than-honest political thorn in Prime Minister Major’s side; taking him onto the party’s candidates list would be embarrassing for the Conservative group in the European Parliament. Were he to be elected as an MEP it would be a nightmare.
The voluntary party assessors were divided, though the MP Richard Ottaway was clear that Boris’s application should definitely proceed.
I secured agreement by majority at the meeting that Boris would be included on the list, but it was clear that the matter was far from over.
That evening I called Boris and told him that it would be helpful if he would agree in the first instance only to seek selection for a seat that was unlikely to be won by the Tories.
This accorded with his current plans as he had set them out to me at our earlier meeting, and he readily agreed. I then called Basil Feldman, who chaired the Party’s candidates advisory committee, to alert him to the fact that there was a significant difference of opinion over one of our PSB applicants.
Meanwhile, Richard Simmonds phoned the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and asked for an urgent meeting. At the meeting, he made clear that he spoke for all the MEPs who had been present at the selection board and said that they were adamant that Boris’s candidature should not proceed.
Subsequently, Douglas Hurd called Party chairman Norman Fowler to alert him to the strong MEP reaction — a reaction which Douglas made clear he more or less supported.
Norman, however, was having none of it and said it was a matter for the Party’s normal procedures. Norman said he would not intervene and that he would stand by my decision. That decision was subsequently approved by Basil Feldman’s committee.
That was not the end of the affair, however. After a Commons vote the following Tuesday, Norman waved me over to the corner of the Members’ Lobby.
‘Andrew, I am afraid you need to go and see John Major. He is very concerned that you put Boris on the candidates list. Apparently Boris has enraged him by writing rude copy from Brussels. He takes these things personally.’
I told Norman that I did not think I could continue as his vice- chairman if the decision was reversed, as it would destroy any authority that I had in this area of our party’s activities if I was over-ruled from on high.
Not for the last time I found myself working for a superb boss: Norman made clear that he had backed my decision to admit Boris.
The following evening, I went to see the Prime Minister in his office behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons. It was the first time I’d seen him on his own since he had been elected and I had been part of his leadership team back in 1990.
The meeting did not start well. As I entered his office, he was standing by the fireplace. ‘Ah, Andrew, thanks for coming. What the f*** do you mean by putting Boris Johnson on the candidates’ list?’
I explained that he satisfied all the criteria for membership, had duly passed through the system and been selected, and that it was not my job to make windows into people’s ideological souls but to decide if they were suitable to be commended to constituency parties as selectable.
To start discriminating in this way would undermine the list and could lead to constituency associations losing confidence in the way the central party list was put together. I also mentioned that I had extracted an agreement from Boris that he would not seek to stand in a winnable European constituency.
I left the Prime Minister irritated and not much mollified but disinclined to intervene further.
Some weeks later, I was working at the Conservative Central Office and reviewing the list of applications for a plum Conservative European seat where the sitting MEP had announced his retirement.
There, halfway down the lengthy list of applicants, was Boris Johnson’s name. There had clearly been some confusion given our earlier discussion (and, importantly, my conversation with John Major).
I rang Boris and said I was sure there had been an inadvertent error as his name was down to seek selection for a strongly Tory European seat.
There was a considerable amount of harrumphing at his end of the phone, followed by him agreeing to withdraw his application.
Subsequently, he was translated onto both parliamentary lists and fought for the seat of Clwyd in Wales, where he duly — and unsurprisingly — lost to the Labour candidate in the 1997 general election.
While Boris was contesting Clwyd, I was fighting for my political life in my constituency of Gedling, and after ten years in the Commons I was unceremoniously despatched in the Blair landslide.
I picked myself up and was lucky enough to find myself selected as Sutton Coldfield candidate for the 2001 election.
I had bumped into Boris on and off during the 1990s and we had both ended up living in Islington. Our wives became friends.
Shortly after my good fortune in Sutton Coldfield, Boris invited me round for a chat. His eye had alighted on the vacancy in Henley occasioned by the retirement of Michael Heseltine, possibly concluding that if another tall, hirsute blond were to take over the plum Oxfordshire seat, few people would notice.
Boris questioned me closely about money. ‘What does one get paid?’ I told him. His eyes widened.
‘Goodness, I can’t possibly live on that. I’ve a family to feed.’
In 2001, Boris became MP for Henley; and I became MP for Sutton Coldfield. From time to time, we would cycle back to Islington, puffing up the hill, and every now and then Boris would be recognised by a passing pedestrian or we would both come perilously close to being mown down by a lorry.
Extracted from Beyond A Fringe by Andrew Mitchell, to be published by Biteback on October 12 at £20. Copyright © Andrew Mitchell 2021. To order a copy for £18 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Offer valid until 16.10.21, free UK delivery on orders over £20.
Cameron’s forecast about our future PM
In 2012, just after I had taken over as Chief Whip, I recall a conversation with David Cameron about Boris Johnson and his second term as the Mayor of London.
‘You do realise, don’t you,’ said David, ‘that Boris is going to be Prime Minister?’
I expressed some surprise — not least because Boris was not even in the Commons then. He was Mayor of London. Cameron had only been in Number 10 for two years.
I enquired how he felt so sure and queried whether he thought the UK was ready for Boris’s finger to be anywhere near the nuclear trigger.
I remember very clearly Cameron’s absolute certainty that, all objections aside, Boris would be Prime Minister.
Many of my fellow MPs are kinder and more decent than the public image allows.
I once entered the office of Southend West Conservative MP Sir David Amess to hear him dictating a heartfelt letter to a constituent. He said: ‘Dear Mrs Allan, I am writing to say how sorry I have been to learn of the death of Percy. Percy, your much-loved budgerigar…’
BBC’s 70s sitcom that made Suu Kyi laugh
The final of the three shows is a ghastly 1970s sitcom about the Burma campaign — starring Windsor Davies as battery sergeant major Williams in a British unit in World War II. The politician said that the TV programme made her howl out loud with laughter
Following discreet enquiries, when I visited Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi (left) as International Development Secretary just after she’d been released from her time under house arrest, I brought her as a present three DVDs.
Downton Abbey, Yes, Prime Minister and — at her specific request — It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. The final of the three shows is a ghastly 1970s sitcom about the Burma campaign — starring Windsor Davies as battery sergeant major Williams in a British unit in World War II.
The politician said that the TV programme made her howl out loud with laughter.
Plebgate cost me £2m – and left me like a hunted animal
Reflecting on the sheer awfulness of these events in 2014 is like a dog returning to its vomit.
It was my weakness — arrogance, indeed — that started it all off.
My brief altercation with a police officer on duty at the Downing Street entrance lasted less than a minute.
The CCTV images show Andrew Mitchell, cycling to the main Downing Street gate where he speaks to police officers before eventually using the pedestrian gate
Although words were exchanged over how I could get my bicycle out of Downing Street and what I perceived to be an unhelpful attitude by the officers, the problem was resolved and I left with my bicycle through the pedestrian gate. This led to my resignation from the government and two libel actions costing me more than £2 million.
It was the following afternoon that Ed Llewellyn, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, telephoned me. ‘Houston, we have a problem’ was his succinct analysis. The Sun had got hold of the previous night’s altercation. I displayed considerable naivety: ‘Is it a big story?’
I immediately issued a statement, acknowledging that I had not treated the police with the respect they deserve, and apologising. I thought it would be a two-day wonder.
The balloon went up as The Sun’s front page headline emerged: ‘Cabinet minister: police are plebs.’ It went on: ‘A millionaire cabinet minister was threatened with arrest after an astonishing foul-mouthed rant at armed cops in Downing Street. Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell raged “You’re f***ing plebs.” ’
A tsunami of vitriol assailed me. I was advised by Downing Street to give a media interview and grovel as hard and as far as I could. I tried.
I am not good at grovelling, and it showed. The interview was a disaster. Far from bringing down the curtain on the story, I had given it yet more legs.
I could not sleep. I stopped eating and started smoking again. On several days I simply could not get out of bed.
As I faced the wall at 3am after another day of wild attacks, I wondered if I could take much more of this. On one occasion I was spat at on the street. I felt like a hunted animal.
One black person came up to me and said: ‘Now you know what it is like for us.’
But overall there was scant sympathy for the well-heeled, arrogant Tory toff portrayed in the press.
The story took another turn with the emergence of an email which purported to be a detailed account of the altercation from an individual claiming to be a passer-by. The author said he had been disgusted by my behaviour, as had other tourists at the gate, one of whom may have ‘inadvertently’ filmed me ranting away.
I was convinced I was being stitched up by the writer of the email.
Prime Minister David Cameron told me I would have to go. When finally I saw CCTV footage (inset) there seemed to be serious discrepancies between the email and the situation recorded by the film.
Had I decided to walk away at this point, my reputation would have been largely restored.
Suing for libel turned out to be a fatal mistake. My feeling gave way to abject terror as I discovered the intergalactic fees to which I suddenly found myself exposed.
It felt like I was on a conveyor belt to hell. In addition, there was evidence against me.
The police had dug up reports of a small number of incidents going back over the previous decade when I had been high-handed when driving or cycling into the Commons.
Many such incidents take place when harassed MPs are late and rush in. Sometimes officials would cover themselves, in case MPs complained, by getting their retaliation in first. Nevertheless, one of these incidents was broadly accurate.
In the court judgment, Justice John Mitting said he was ‘satisfied on balance of probabilities that Mr Mitchell did speak the words alleged or something close to them, including the politically toxic word “pleb” ’.
I was obliged to pay £80,000 to the police officer and faced legal bills of around £2 million.
Nearly two years later I was astonished to be hailed across the drawing room of a London club by the same Justice Mitting with the words ‘I hope we are not on bad terms.’
Here we were in the most establishment of settings and the judge behaves as if we were at prep school together and all is forgiven in a ‘good chaps’ sort of way. His decision was all in a day’s work for him, never mind the huge emotional, career and financial cost to me.
Following the libel case, I started to suffer from serious depression. At the insistence of my wife, Sharon, I sought medical help.
Looked after by a brilliant psychiatric consultant, the late Jeremy Pfeffer, I began to recover.
I woke up one morning after three years and realised I was over it. And in the process, I found I’d resigned from the British Establishment.
‘X’ marked the spot – but Labour missed it
During John Major’s prime ministership a serious problem had arisen from the discovery in a Downing St basement of ‘whips’ notes’.
These were short notes, principally gossip, which members of the Whips’ Office would write up and would then be gone through at the daily whips’ meeting. I was a whip at the time.
Often it would be ‘X expressed doubts about the Finance Bill in the Tearoom today’ or ‘Y is fed up with not being promoted and is heading off the reservation’ or ‘Z needs looking after; his wife has left him’.
Conservative party Leadership contender Boris Johnson with Andrew Mitchell attends a members event in Sutton Coldfield after the Hustings
The top copy was then destroyed but a duplicate was kept by the Chief Whip in the original notebook.
If the note had an ‘X’ on the top right-hand corner, that note would be sent privately to John Major in his flat at No 10. Major had been a whip and knew all about ‘The Book’.
When Richard Ryder became his Chief Whip, he agreed to Major’s request that he be shown the more interesting among the notes. This was a mistake. That most skilful of Mrs Thatcher’s Chief Whips, John Wakeham, expressed astonishment that Richard had ever agreed to do this.
‘I regarded it as a key part of my job to tell Mrs Thatcher what she needed to know — but I’d never have shown her the whips’ notes.’
Wakeham didn’t think Mrs Thatcher should be troubled too much with the gossip about the sex lives of her junior colleagues — which she might not have understood in any case.
In due course these notes came into the public domain and the solids hit the fan.
In a separate incident, a Whip’s note from me came to light in 1996 setting out advice to me from the clerk to the MPs’ Interests Committee in respect of the inquiry into the ‘cash for questions’ controversy involving Conservative MP Neil Hamilton.
It was at the time that Tony Blair had claimed the Conservative administration was ‘mired in sleaze’.
While what I said was perfectly proper, I had nevertheless shared with the Whips’ Office details of the workings of the committee. A huge row broke out and the matter was referred to the Committee of Privileges to investigate.
Another Conservative Minister, David Willetts, who was accused of trying to influence the investigation into Hamilton, resigned.
The committee found that I had behaved honourably. Had they decided otherwise I would have had to resign as well. Throughout the time I was cross-examined I knew there was one issue that could have lit the touch paper and roared into a front-page story.
My note had an ‘X’ on the top. (Which meant it had been sent to the Prime Minister).
Had the committee asked me what that meant I would have had to tell them. That would have drawn No 10 directly into the whole sleaze row.
My evidence session was watched discreetly by those in the know.
One Labour MP’s cross-examination got very close, but for some reason she veered off. So that dog never barked.
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