Last year’s Conservative Party conference was bitter for Andrew Mitchell.
The MP for Sutton Coldfield was forced to avoid the event even though it was held in Birmingham, the city he represents, after he was accused of abusing police officers guarding the gates of Downing Street.
But he was able to show his face at this year’s conference in Manchester after CCTV evidence threw serious doubt on some of the allegations against him.
When I met Mr Mitchell at a Manchester hotel, our interview was interrupted by well-wishers – who wanted to pose for photos with him.
The mood, among Tory activists at least, was that he had been badly treated by police officers and by parts of the media – and his own party leader is hinting about a return to the Cabinet.
Mr Mitchell was staying silent about the ‘plebgate’ affair – perhaps because a Metropolitan Police inquiry into the behaviour of its own officers is still continuing.
But he was delighted to be able to attend the conference this year, he said.
“It is very nice to see so many old friends from the voluntary side of the party – people I have known for years.”
He had “grown up with the party”, he said – as his father, Sir David Mitchell, had also been an MP. “The first time I attended a party meeting, it was in a pushchair.”
A former Cabinet minister, he held the roles of International Development Secretary and then Chief Whip before being forced to resign from the Government last year.
David Cameron has hinted he could be offered a fresh government job once the police inquiry is completed – but here are also reports that he was offered an EU role, which would involve quitting Parliament and leaving his Sutton Coldfield constituency behind.
Mr Mitchell said: “I have every intention of continuing to represent the people of Sutton Coldfield, who send me to Westminster to look after their interests and the interests of the town.”
If there appears to be any ambiguity at all in his comments, it’s because he has not yet been re-selected by local activists as their candidate and feels it would be “presumptuous” to declare that he will be the candidate, but his intention to stand again seems clear.
So a posting in Europe looks unlikely. At the moment, he’s using his freedom as a backbencher to urge the party leadership to move in the direction of “one nation” politics, in keeping with his role as Secretary of the One Nation Group of Conservative MPs.
“I’m absolutely convinced the party can win the next election with an overall majority,” he begins.
But he goes on to highlight changes he thinks the party needs to make. They include doing far more to reach out to voters from ethnic minority communities.
“The party needs to do far, far more to connect with different communities and with the leaders of those communities.”
As International Development Secretary he often dealt with British people with links to overseas countries – and found that they were often “natural conservatives” but did not feel the party spoke for them.
“We have got to do better. These are our people and we need to persuade them that their priorities are our priorities.”
The second area of concern is UKIP and its success in bleeding Conservative support.
While UKIP itself insists that it is winning votes from former supporters of every party, Mr Mitchell says: “These are our cousins.
“We need to persuade these people that by supporting the Conservatives at the next election they are going to get the EU referendum they want.”
And he wants the party to make cutting youth unemployment a priority.
“It is completely unacceptable that there are still so many children leaving school and kids leaving university who don’t have a job.
“There is nothing worse than people leaving school or university with nothing to do.
“Youth unemployment is far too high in our region, the West Midlands.
“We need the Government to have a passionate desire to see that every child and student leaving university has a job or gets the relevant training.
“You can’t have the disappointment and misery associated with not being able to get a job.”
The Government could introduce incentives in the tax system to encourage firms to take on apprentices, he suggested.
Whether Mr Mitchell will return to government remains to be seen.
But David Cameron suggested it was a possibility, when he was asked by BBC interviewer Andrew Marr.
The Prime Minister said: “Right now there is a police investigation going on and a number of people have been arrested.
“These things shouldn’t go on and on and on, but it’s under way and it wouldn’t be right for me as Prime Minister to interfere in that in any way. We have to wait for the outcome and then make decisions.
“He is a very talented politician. I have enormous respect for him. He was a brilliant (International) Development Secretary. I am very sorry about all the things that have taken place. We have to let this investigation take place and then we can take it from there.”