Mark his Words
Contrary to reports, Mark Pritchard is relaxed about privilege, comfortable in Coalition and definitely not a rebel – just don’t expect him to keep quiet about his convictions
Mark Pritchard was born a Tory. “All my foster family were Labour, and I was always a Conservative. It was quite natural. It was in my DNA,” he says.“I spent most of my life in Herefordshire, but I also grew up in Wales, in the heart of the mining valleys, the Afan valley, from 1976 to 1981. That was a period when Thatcher wasn’t particularly popular. I was really inspired by Thatcher. I suppose you could say I was the only Conservative in the village.
“I spoke to Katherine Jenkins [the opera singer] about this recently. She is a Conservative and I said ‘you must have been the only Conservative in the village, in the valley’, and she felt the same way. She was in the valley just down the road from me, from a place called Pontrhydyfen in Neath, where Richard Burton was born.”
Pritchard, who has been MP for The Wrekin since 2005, is best-known for two things: animal welfare and what he calls his “arch Euroscepticism”.
He rejects the label of ‘rebel’, preferring ‘independent-minded’.
“If I believe something and I have convictions, then I should stick to those convictions and try to persuade people to my point of view and hopefully people will agree with me,” he explains. “I came into politics to try and change things for the better – I did not come into politics to be popular.”
He rejects the suggestion he has a temper. “I would say that I get impatient from time to time.”
Pritchard says it “just so happens” that when he disagrees with the Government it has been on high-profile issues. “My view is that I hopefully speak sparingly, although some might say I speak despairingly, and choose my moments. Timing is as important in politics as the issue, and if I was commenting on everything all the time that would do me harm and be unhelpful.”
Pritchard scored a significant victory with the ban on wild animals in circuses. He led an impassioned campaign, and in a speech to the House in 2011, claimed Downing Street had offered him a “pretty trivial job” if he agreed to drop the Commons motion calling for a ban. He didn’t back down, the House supported him, and two years later the ban was finally agreed by the Government.
In October last year he joined forces with Mark Reckless to pass a rebel amendment calling for a real terms cut in the EU’s budget.
“The Government was defeated on that, but the Prime Minister was empowered. He went to Brussels and actually got a real terms cut. It was a huge triumph and achievement for him as a person.”
Pritchard says David Cameron “looks the part, sounds the part, and is getting better at being Prime Minster”. “Perhaps it is inevitable, but not always I suppose, that a prime minister is better three years in than on day one, so he has learnt a lot in the last three years. The Coalition is in a stronger place today than it was 12 months ago or even 24 months ago.”
Pritchard also hit the headlines in January 2011 when he had a spat with John Bercow. His riposte to the Speaker – “you are not fucking royalty” – caught the public imagination and was reported across the world.
However Pritchard dismisses it as “a misunderstanding” and is full of praise for the Speaker. “He is doing an excellent job. He has strengthened Parliament, he has enabled backbenchers to have more of a voice. That is good for democracy and good for MPs’ constituents.”
Was his outburst a reaction to privilege, an issue much discussed as Cameron fights off suggestions he has surrounded himself with a public school cabal?
“I don’t have an issue with privilege,” Pritchard replies. “I would have loved to have gone to Eton and I would love to wear a golden frock to work every day, but there is only one golden frock in the House and the Speaker wears it.”
Pritchard’s early years were markedly different from his party leader’s. For the first five years of his life he was brought up in an orphanage in Hereford and was later in foster care.
“I don’t have a single bad memory from my time in the orphanage, from six months to five years old, and all credit to those who surrounded me with love, care and affection.
“In fact this year I am hosting all of the ‘aunties’ for a dinner here in Parliament to say thank you for what they did. I am also getting a picture framed of the orphanage where I grew up, which was a huge, beautiful Victorian house. Why should I be the only Conservative without a picture of a large house in my office?”
Pritchard reveals he did trace his birth parents – both of whom are now dead.“I never met my father who died some years ago of cancer, I did meet my mother a few times.”
This natural-born Tory first got involved in party politics in 1988: “I was living in Oxford and I was asked to stand for Wood Farm, a Labour heartland, as the Oxbridge folk in this place will know.
“I was actually living in Woodstock at the time but working in Oxford. I noticed in the qualifications that you needed to have lived or worked in the area for six months and I did not qualify. I was encouraged by somebody, now deceased, to not worry about the rules, and that no one would ever know.
“But I did not feel it was necessarily the right way to start off my political career, although some people allegedly have gone on to become prime minister without worrying about those rules.”
Before he became an MP, Pritchard worked as a marketing consultant, advising companies in the leisure and commercial sectors on entry into new markets, including in the emerging Eastern European and Soviet states. Does he have any advice for the Tory party on how it can reach out to new voters?
“I defer to Lynton Crosby who is very good and very able and a great Australian. I think his guidance and advice is already being felt in a positive way in the party.
“I wouldn’t dare to try and share my advice, but I would say that I don’t think you can repeat a message often enough. We need to be better communicators as a party.”
He predicts that his party “can still win” in 2015. “I think David Cameron will lead us into the next election. Eventually he will move on, all prime ministers do, but there is no other person who I think can manage the Coalition in the way he does.”
Pritchard, despite his reputation as a thorn in the side of the establishment, hankers after ministerial office: “I would like to do it, whether I am asked we will wait and see. I would like to serve in Government and hopefully I would be able to make a minor contribution and give a different perspective. I will wait and see – there is a lot of competition out there, a lot of hugely talented people in the party and we have got some very able ministers.”
As for the EU, Pritchard wants to renegotiate but is pessimistic about the outcome. “It is only a matter of when not if the United Kingdom leaves the EU,” he claims.“It is right that we should try and reform Europe, it is in the interests of Europe that it reforms. Britain can be good consultants on the European project and how it can reform. But I personally don’t believe the scale of reforms that are required politically within this country, and would be acceptable, would be delivered by Brussels.”
Pritchard wants a bill on EU membership “to come before Parliament in six or seven months’ time – it will be too late after the European elections”.
In the meantime, his next project is to end the practice of keeping primates as pets.
“There are about 12,000 primates in this country who are often kept in cruel and cramped conditions,” he says. “I believe that while we regard ourselves as superior to the animal kingdom, we have responsibility to look after animals and our planet. I was an environmentalist long before climate change as a term ever came into use, and I just think we are leaseholders of this planet not freeholders.”
Pritchard is an intense presence, so it is surprising to find out his hobby is writing comedy: “I am a failed comedy writer! In fact years ago I used to submit lots of sketches to Spitting Image. I am working on a character-based comedy series which I hope to complete early next year. I was asked to write something about the life of a constituency MP but I felt that was bit close to home.”
He also plays tennis “very badly” and enjoys jazz. His other great love is canine, but he has suffered tragedy of late.
“It has been an annus horribilis this year as I lost both my miniature schnauzers – one was 16 and he died in our arms in front of the fire at home, a nice way to go.
“Pebbles was 12 and she died unexpectedly by vets not doing their job properly. It took me six months to get over it. I am comforted that they both are buried in my garden in Shropshire. It was touching to be able to bury them, wrap them in their favourite blanket and with their favourite toy. I said a little prayer and reading and sent them off with a proper Christian dog burial which you would expect from an Englishman who is an animal lover.”