Andrew Mitchell pulls out of Conservative conference

Chief whip, accused of calling police "plebs", did not want to be a "distraction".

No Labour or Liberal Democrat conference speech was complete without a reference to Andrew Mitchell's run-in with the police. It began with Vince Cable quipping that he was a "mere pleb" and continued with Danny Alexander greeting Lib Dem delegates as "fellow plebs". For Labour, Ed Miliband angrily denounced Mitchell's behaviour as proof that the Tories could never be a "one nation" government, whilst Yvette Cooper, channeling The Communist Manifesto, cried, "Plebs of the world unite, we have nothing to lose but this Government." And I'd wager that "plebs" will also make an appearance in Harriet Harman's closing speech today.

One can hardly blame them for making play of the incident. Unlike many political scandals, "pleb gate" is easily understood by the public and all the more damaging for it. So damaging, indeed, that Mitchell has pulled out of next week's Conservative conference in Birmingham. The Telegraph reports that the Chief Whip will stay away in order to avoid becoming a "distraction" (which he certainly would have been).

Fortunately for the Tories, Mitchell, as Chief Whip, was not expected to give a speech. Had he remained International Development Secretary in the recent reshuffle, it would have been much harder to justify a non-appearance.

Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell will not appear at next week's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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