Jeff Vinall (Committee, Brasenose) is an undergraduate reading Jurisprudence
The elusive “great storm”-which-never-was set the backdrop for OUCA’s trip to Parliament, so it was under a surprisingly bright sunlit sky that we rendezvoused at Oxford train station. Predictably, despite the noticeable absence of the expected deluges, the rail system was in disarray. Whether to change at Reading or Thatcham, or go straight for Paddington, was therefore a contentious issue – before long, we had made our choices and splintered into several smallish groups. Our journey proceeded in typically Conservative fashion as, from the moment our separate trains left the station, we were in competition. And it was a fierce competition, becoming ever more nerve-wrecking as we willed our trains onwards towards the capital, but ultimately we all arrived (more or less) in time to huddle into a small meeting room just off Westminster Hall to hear the former Government Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, speak.
Ironically, given how far we had come, Mr Mitchell’s first revelation was his passion for attending debates in Oxford and Cambridge – especially how he had been disappointed that the Oxford Union did not vote to show confidence in Her Majesty’s Government at the beginning of this term. He wasted no time, though, in moving onto a topic of unsurpassable importance: how the Conservatives could hope to win the next general election. “It’s the economy stupid!” – Bill Clinton’s famous phrase, at least to Mr Mitchell, was equally applicable to the current situation. In his view, the Conservatives lost their credibility on the economy after Black Wednesday, when the Conservative Government of John Major was forced to increase interest rates greatly and then exit the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Mr Mitchell’s question, then, was whether the improving economy under the current, Conservative-led Government would be enough of a reason for the electorate to once again vote for Conservatives. The danger, he said, is that the people will think it is now becoming “safe” to let Labour back into power.
On George Osborne, Mitchell was full of praise. Once, he admitted, the popular view of Osborne had taken a battering; however today the Chancellor of the Exchequer is, to use Mitchell’s phrase, “recovery stock”. If he’s right, we heard it from him first … if not, he hopes we’ll quietly forget – either way, you read it in Blueprint before the national papers.
Although the economy is of undeniable importance, Mitchell’s second proposal was that the party must reach out to minority communities. His experience as Minister for International Development, he said, had shown him without doubt that people from, for instance, immigrant backgrounds were as likely as anyone to be conservative, if not more so. Giving the example of Pakistani communities, Mitchell expanded: their natural ideological background is often conservative but, at the moment, the Conservative party as a whole is not one which they feel able to support. This, he said, must change.
The Labour Party currently facing us is one which Mitchell said espoused “raw socialism”. The idea of restraining energy prices by law, mooted by Ed Miliband in his recent party conference, predates the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Mitchell declared it long since disproved. That said, though, it is important that the Conservatives do not look out of touch. On this point, Mitchell stressed that an Oxbridge education should never be a barrier to aspiring politicians; however it is important that the Party is seen to understand the necessity for “scrimping and saving” wherever possible. The next election, he thought, is one of the most open and exciting of recent years. Conservatives ultimately, if we are to win, need to champion progressive, compassionate conservative policies.
Members then had an opportunity to ask questions on a variety of interesting topics. Amongst these, it was almost inevitable that the spectre which has been hanging over Mitchell since the now-infamous “plebgate” would arise. Mitchell said that he has deliberately shied away from commenting publicly on the matter; however he did have one particularly poignant point to make: if it is possible for police officers in the diplomatic protection group to stitch up a senior cabinet member, then what chance do children from deprived backgrounds and minorities have of being treated fairly?
After a short time during which members were free to explore the Palace of Westminster, it was time for our meeting with the Home Secretary. We gathered outside the meeting room with the kind of solemn nervousness which I imagine can only accompany an impending meeting with one of the great Secretaries of State in Parliament: none of us were sure from where she would arrive, what format she wished to address us in or even whether some national emergency might understandably call her elsewhere. But, soon enough, we were ushered into a room which, from its appearance, must usually be used for Parliamentary committee meetings, for our audience with Theresa May.
Mrs May, after apologising for the short wait before she had arrived by way of the understatement “I lead a busy life”, said that she would make a short speech then take questions. On this last point, she said she would follow the motto of John Major and allow members to ask “any questions you like, in the manner you like, and I will answer however I like”.
The speech Mrs May gave then listed some of the most impressive achievement of the Home Office under her leadership since 2010. These included, for example, the “most significant reforms to policing since Peel”. This involved, she said, the establishment of the new National Crime Agency, the introduction of a new College of Policing alongside, for the first time, a code of ethics for police officers, and the scrapping of over £4.5 million worth of man hours which had previously been used for unnecessary bureaucracy.
She also propounded her success thus far in advancing a new Immigration Bill which will make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to live in the UK. On this point, though, Mrs May stressed that the current situation, whereby the judiciary have not always accepted Parliament’s true intention in relation to incorporating article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, the right to a private and family life, in the Human Rights Act 1998, was unacceptable. The Government would now aim, she said, to put the interpretation of that article beyond doubt through legislation.
Mrs May also highlighted the importance of a new Modern Slavery Bill which she will guide through Parliament, expressing her sadness that such measures were necessary to combat human trafficking. Such a need was clearly demonstrated, though, she pointed out, by a recent case where the National Crime Agency identified over 80 workers being exploited for their labour in Cambridgeshire.
Mrs May then took questions, and to our surprise we were able to get through an extraordinarily broad range of issues, as the Home Secretary kindly gave us much more time than we might have expected.
On the issue of immigration, for example, Mrs May spoke of her intention to bring down the cap on entry but simultaneously expressed her concern that academics should never be prevented from being able to teach at our academic institutions simply because they are from outside the EU. The Home Secretary also spoke more candidly of her dissatisfaction with the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act, reiterating her personal preference for a new British Bill of Rights.
In relation to a query about the low turnout at the first election of Police and Crime Commissioners, a measure introduced under her ministership, Mrs May spoke of her optimism that turnout in such elections would rise. This would happen, she said, because the next elections would be held in May rather than November, when people are more used to having the opportunity to vote, and candidates would have to stand either challenging or defending a pre-existing record.
On the issue of recent spying scandals, Mrs May was keen to stress that the UK possessed a strong legal framework and a strong oversight structure to prevent abuses of the powers which security services have been widely publicised as exercising. However, the Home Secretary also conceded that tradition frameworks for monitoring communications technology, for example the “context rather than content” model used for telephone calls, did not translate well to monitoring internet communication. A new framework, she said, was needed and Mrs May went on to express her disappointment that Nick Clegg had effectively done away with the Bill in which she had intended to implement such a new framework with a throwaway remark made during a radio interview.
Finally, Mrs May also spoke about her own progress through the party. From an early age, the Home Secretary was interested in politics, and began her political participation “stuffing envelopes” for her local Conservative association. She confirmed her involvement with OUCA while at Oxford and spoke fondly of the ability of student politics in Oxford to teach skills which are extremely useful in Parliament. One length to which she had never gone though, which she jokingly suggested perhaps William Hague might have done, was reading Hansard under the bedcovers at night.
This brought to an end our audience with the Secretary of State for the Home Department and our second fantastic political speaker of the day. The die-hard amongst us remained in Westminster for a meal before returning to Oxford, and all would testify to how enjoyable and intriguing the day had been. All who attended should therefore be grateful to our President for his hard work in securing such high-calibre audiences and managing a successful excursion. All we need to do now is establish, as Mr Mitchell informed us CUCA already has, a termly dinner in Parliament.