When It Happens Panel Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting 'OXFORD NEWS' to 80360 or email
Divisive and now departing
For Mr Mitchell 12 years ago made it to on to a shortlist of five to be the prospective Conservative candidate for the West Oxfordshire constituency, following the defection of the sitting MP Shaun Woodward to Labour and then to a safe seat in the north-west.
You have to wonder how national politics might have unfolded if the selection panel in 2000 had gone for the local candidate rather than the smooth ex-special adviser to a Chancellor of the Exchequer.
One thing is for sure, local government in Oxfordshire would be different today if Mr Mitchell had been successful in his one and only attempt to go to Westminster.
But as he prepares to stand down after a decade as leader of Oxfordshire County Council, he has no regrets about dedicating himself to County Hall.
Mr Cameron has only enjoyed more power than him for the last two years Mr Mitchell points out, noting that even as leader of the opposition Mr Cameron never controlled a near £1bn budget.
Besides, life on the backbenches would never have been to the taste of the man Oxfordshire came to know as ‘Kaiser Keith’, as he makes clear.
“MPs are really glorified social workers, worrying about their majorities. I would not have been happy as an MP. I’ve loved what I’ve done.”
What he has undoubtedly done is dominate the local political scene for as almost as long as many can remember: loathed and admired, trusted and mocked in equal measure.
As with his great political hero, Margaret Thatcher, there are not many neutrals when it comes to Keith Mitchell — and that’s exactly the way he likes it.
“Well, she led, she was not afraid of criticism and she did not court popularity,” he tells me, before quoting a line or two from one of his many correspondents since announcing he was standing down last November. It is unprintable. “You can’t say I have courted popularity,” he chuckles.
It is difficult to recall all the vested interests that he has offended down the years: Oxford’s chattering classes, hairy lefties, well-heeled worthies, liberal intelligentsia, the cyclists lobby, “ugly, badly-dressed rabble” student demonstrators — and it is best not to mention political correctness.
When I do, he replies: “If you don’t have a sense of humour and sense of proportion, you are a lost soul. I’m not really sure how many politicians have a sense of humour and sense of proportion.”
As an ultra-traditionalist, Mr Mitchell admits that he initially had doubts about Mrs Thatcher becoming leader on the grounds that a woman leader was unknown territory. Her political demise did not impress him either. “She stayed on too long. I’ve copied Harold Wilson in deciding when I should go.”
But, like Wilson, he knows he is departing with the country still in deep financial trouble and Oxfordshire facing more tough decisions.
“I think there will be an other round of cuts in the next spending session. I would not have minded doing that if I had to,” he said, predicting that savings and cuts will continue for another five to 10 years. “We have managed to keep all the libraries open but we may not be able to do that in the next round of cuts.
“We will come through the other side. It is not a sinking ship. The ship is sailing well. It is just time for a change in captain.“ He will stand down at the council’s annual meeting on Tuesday — with Ian Hudspeth to succeed him — conscious that as leader he failed to meet his long-held ambitions for Oxfordshire’s schools.
With the county persistently languishing near the bottom of exam league tables, falling far behind counties with similar socio-economic characteristics, Mr Mitchell made education the great priority of his administration.
“It has improved, but not fast enough,” he said. “It is the slow process of turning a tanker. Oxford city schools continue to underperform.”
The city’s schools results in maths and English at key stage one continue to be the worst in the country.
Mr Mitchell believes parents must bear responsibility.
At one end of the scale he sees dysfunctional families with bad experiences of the school system who see no need for learning in an unbreakable cycle of deprivation.
At the other end, he says, are middle class parents and heads who do not believe in tests, locked into a crippling complacency at coasting schools.
Good leadership within schools is what matters and school governing bodies need to flex their muscles, he insists.
“One of the great frustrations is that some governing bodies just see their role as protecting the head. To turn things around, governors need to challenge. They need to ask why results are not better.”
Care for the elderly has proved another intractable problem, with Oxfordshire consistently recording the worst results in the country for bed-blocking, caused when the elderly or disabled are unable to leave hospital without extra care being put in place at home.
“There is something systemic in health and social care. There is not a simple answer. I’m not sure GPs or hospital consultants are interested in older people. They are interested in research and exciting stuff. Old people are not exciting. There is an issue around that.”
Being batted between GP, hospital and social care, brings enormous frustrations, he recognises.
Last year Mr Mitchell revealed his own experiences as a councillor and son helped convince him of the need to reform care for the elderly, having watched his father’s descent into dementia.
He has been supportive of the Government’s health reforms, but the Tory leadership’s recent performance brings a typical Mitchell broadside.
“They are giving us a hard time locally. Campaigners in the local elections were going out armed to face stories about pasties and pensioners. But there are new stories every day.
“Running a coalition is hard but I wish they could get a grip. The handling of the Budget was a disaster.”
His tip for Mr Cameron is to cut the size of his cabinet and the number of ministers.
The uncompromising style allows some to forget that he is well versed in coalition politics, having worked with the Lib Dems at County Hall between 2001 and 2005.
He appears to look back on those days nostalgically.
In a similar way he now views fondly his years overseeing the South East Plan, as chairman of the regional assembly’s planning committee, even though that massive document was immediately binned by the incoming coalition Government.
He intends to stand down as county councillor for Bloxham in 2013, meaning he would have completed 25 years at County Hall.
He says he is looking forward to a short spell as “a quiet backbencher, with no intention of doing “an Edward Heath” by making life difficult for new leader — even if not long ago Mr Hudspeth unsuccessfully stood against him in a leadership contest.
“It is a big job. He will quickly find that out,” said Mr Mitchell.
As he approaches his 66th birthday, the former chartered accountant hates any suggestion of retirement. It’s more of a change of career direction, he says and appears keen to help promote Oxfordshire’s economy or work with business, but don’t bet against some involvement in politics.
“When Eric Pickles sends you a hand-written note,” he says, “you know that you have done something right.”