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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.