Andrew Mitchell's future hangs in the balance

Chief Whip will be told to "come clean" when he meets West Midlands police officers today.

Three weeks after the news of Andrew Mitchell's run-in with the police first broke, the controversy shows no sign of receding. The Chief Whip will meet members of the West Midlands Police Federation in his constituency office today and will face pressure to finally come clean over what he said. Simon Payne, the chairman of Warwickshire Police Federation, tells the Times (£): "The issue is not a complicated one. All we are seeking is clarification on what was said, an apology, then we want to move on."

Should Mitchell fail to offer "clarification", however, the Police Federation will almost certainly demand his resignation. The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, has already done so. In an editorial published today, the house journal of the Tory party declares: 

If he stays, Mr Mitchell can do little good, and much damage. For the sake of his party, he should do the decent thing and stand down.

As I noted on Wednesday, an increasing number of Tory MPs are of the same opinion, believing that Mitchell lacks the authority necessary to perform his duties as Chief Whip. As David Davis astutely observed last week:

What does a Chief Whip have at his fingertips to deploy normally? Well, a mixture of charm, rewards, appeals to loyalty — all of those are diluted at the moment.

He added that it would be "very, very difficult" for Mitchell to do his job. Should he step down, the smart money is on Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude to replace him.

For now at least, Mitchell retains the support of the man who appointed him - David Cameron. The Times (£) reports that the Prime Minister is "inclined to see if the furore will die down and whether Mr Mitchell can command the respect of MPs." As the fortunes of Jeremy Hunt display, Cameron is prepared to back his ministers in the face of overwhelming media pressure to do the reverse. On other occasions, however, (Lord Ashcroft, Andy Coulson) he has held out before eventually giving way.

Cameron will need to decide whether it would be more damaging to hand Labour a ministerial scalp or to retain the services of a man who does not command the confidence of the public or, increasingly, his party.

Update: For the first time since the story broke, Labour has called for Cameron to sack Mitchell. Yvette Cooper has just issued the following statement:

This has gone on long enough. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Chief Whip have proved capable of coming clean swiftly and putting this right. And it is now clear no one even in the Conservative Party has confidence in Andrew Mitchell either. The failure by David Cameron and Andrew Mitchell to take this incident seriously enough and to sort it out straight away means Andrew Mitchell will clearly not be able to instil respect in Parliament or beyond as Chief Whip, and this will just drag on and on. David Cameron needs to put an end to this now and remove Andrew Mitchell from his position as Chief Whip.

I suspect that Labour's decision to call for Mitchell's resignation will increase his chances of survival (remember the case of Jeremy Hunt). Of course, given how damaging the story has been for the Tories, this could be precisely the party's intention.

Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell will meet West Midlands police officers today in an attempt to "clear the air". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear