The Minister for Development and Africa got his start in politics while studying history at CambridgeAndrew Mitchell with permission for Varsity

First entering the House of Commons in 1987 when current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was just seven years old, Andrew Mitchell is a veteran politician. After losing his seat for Gedling, Nottinghamshire in the 1997 Labour landslide, he was returned to Parliament as MP for Sutton Coldfield in 2001 and has held the seat ever since. Throughout his political career, he has sat in the House of Commons with nine Prime Ministers, held five different Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial positions, and been in and out of government three times.

I meet Mitchell during his visit to Jesus College, where he studied history as an undergraduate, and he tells me that returning to his alma mater has him reminiscing over his “wonderful” student days. Starting university is a time of considerable change for anyone, but for Mitchell, who had been on active duty in the army right up to the start of Freshers’ week, even more so: “I’d been in the United Nations forces in Cyprus, and I left Cyprus on the Friday and arrived here on the Sunday.” While he admits he “didn’t trouble the exam scores too much” during his time at Cambridge, he had “three really fabulous years”, a highlight being “making an enormous number of friends, many of whom are still very close friends now nearly fifty years later.”

It was at Cambridge that the future MP for Sutton Coldfield got his start in politics, chairing the Conservative Association (CUCA) in 1977, before being elected president of the Union the following year. He recalls that it was during his Union Presidency that he decided “if politics would have me, I would very much like to have the chance.” Reflecting on the Union today, to my surprise he remarks: “I heard that there’s been some chicanery recently in the Union in terms of elections”, alluding to last year’s election-rigging scandal involving Max Ghose. Mitchell is keen to condemn the impropriety, stressing that it is “very, very much to be regretted”, but, as he recalls, it is certainly not the first election scandal to rock student politics at Cambridge. “Just before I came to Cambridge, I remember someone actually stole the ballot box and had it thrown off Magdalene Bridge into the Cam!”

“someone actually stole the ballot box and had it thrown off Magdalene Bridge into the Cam!”

Despite being heavily involved in politics at university, Mitchell did not enter into a political career directly after graduating, instead working for the investment bank Lazard. Gaining experience in other sectors is Mitchell’s key piece of advice for anyone interested in a career in politics: “you need to do something different before you go [into politics], otherwise you’re not going to add very much to the House of Commons,” he says.

Mitchell has held positions in government across social security, economic affairs, home affairs, and the party whip, but his main has spent the most time in the FCDO, working in international development. He insists, however, that the role he is most proud of doing is the one which he has held throughout his time in government, and that is “being a member of parliament for the town of Sutton Coldfield, because, in the end, politics is about public service.”

In 2022, after being on the backbenches for a decade, Mitchell was brought back into the cabinet by Rishi Sunak as the Minister for Development and Africa. He tells me that balancing Cabinet duties with the day-to-day job of serving his constituents produces a unique set of challenges, but is incredibly rewarding. “My day is certainly spent looking after my constituents, but also in the Foreign Office, trying to ensure that we [Britain] make a contribution to one of the critical issues of the time, which is doing something about these huge discrepancies of opportunity and wealth which disfigure our world.”

“The challenges feel much greater now than they did in my earlier time in government.”

Mitchell gained an additional responsibility in government in November 2023, with the shock return of David Cameron to government as Foreign Secretary. Because he re-entered Parliament via the House of Lords, Lord Cameron cannot address MPs in the House of Commons, which raised questions about how he would be scrutinised and held to account. As “Cameron’s number two”, this job falls to Mitchell, who now fields questions in the Commons on his behalf, and is keen to stress his commitment to transparency. “When David Cameron and I last worked together, we worked very strongly on an agenda in terms of international development of transparency, openness and scrutiny. And so I think it’s in both of our instincts and DNA to deliver that fully for the House of Commons.”

Cameron and Mitchell previously worked together in opposition between 2005 and 2010, and then in government from 2010 to 2012. One of their core focuses was committing Britain to the UN target of spending 0.7% of GNI on foreign aid, but this target was cut to 0.5% under Boris Johnson. Mitchell led the rebellion against the cuts and sought to overturn them but was unsuccessful. I ask if Cameron’s return to government could signal a potential window for that rebellion to be reignited, but Mitchell says he has now reconciled with the decision: “the deal is that it will return to 0.7% when the fiscal tests are satisfied, and although both the Foreign Secretary and I opposed the cut, we both completely accept that deal.”

Decades of experience in the sector have afforded Mitchell a ringside seat on how global challenges have evolved, and he presents a grave assessment of the situation today: “The challenges are the greatest that I’ve seen, I think in my lifetime”, he says. “Between 1990 and 2020, the world made quite extraordinary progress in tackling the extremes of poverty and human misery than at any other time in history. But since 2020, we’ve had the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the events in Sudan and in the Sahel, we’ve had the events in Gaza. The challenges feel much greater now than they did in my earlier time in government.”

“if we don’t hang together, we will certainly hang separately.”

Increasingly, international development is also concerned with climate change and sustainability. Another of Mitchell’s responsibilities is being in charge of climate finance, and as well as having a principal role in COP28, he has recently produced a white paper on the subject. “It answers two fundamental questions”, he explains, “first of all, how do you get the SDGs [UN Sustainable Development Goals] back on track? We aren’t at the halfway point to 2030, we’re way off. And secondly, how do we wrap it in huge amounts of extra funding for climate finance? Climate change hits the poorest countries first and hardest, and Britain can be a leader in moving the dial on this.”

Mitchell explains to me how the paper’s success will depend upon achieving cross-party support. “It has to be election-proofed”, he says, “we need an agreement that this is the right direction I’m pleased to say that there’s been a great deal of agreement between the Labour Party, the Liberal Party, the SNP and the government, all four of the major parties in the House of Commons.”


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While Mitchell is “really pleased to be working for him once again” on a personal level, he also views Sunak’s decision to bring Cameron back as an “absolute masterstroke” in terms of election strategy. “I think the Prime Minister now has the cabinet with which he wants to fight and win the next election, and I very much hope that this is the right team to secure victory.” The latest opinion polls show Labour to have an 8-point lead over the Conservatives, but Mitchell expresses total confidence: “I’m sure my party will win the next election, but the whole parliamentary party must give Rishi Sunak every possible support, because if we don’t hang together, we will certainly hang separately.”

In the last century, no party has won five elections in a row. With official campaign launches growing ever closer following the Prime Minister’s confirmation that “2024 will be an election year”, we won’t be waiting long to find out if Mitchell’s confidence will be brought into fruition, or if his party will be ‘hung’ out to dry.