The Mitchell saga shows Tories in a branding emergency

It is a bad sign when what a politician actually said matters less than the kind of things people expect him to say.

Why did Andrew Mitchell have to resign from his post as Conservative chief whip? The explanation has many layers. The facts of the original pomp-and-profanity episode remain obscure. Mitchell disputes the police record. Politicians sometimes lie; so do police officers. On the evidence alone that should make it a stalemate. What appears to have done for Mitchell is the feeling in the parliamentary Conservative party, especially among the 2010 intake of MPs, that his credibility and authority were shot.

It was never going to be easy for the chief whip to impose discipline when his own lack of self-control had been thoroughly advertised for the best part of a month. But why did the original allegations matter so much in the first place? The toxic element was the suggestion of arrogant snobbery, which was only noteworthy largely because it risked reinforcing problems with David Cameron’s own image – aloof, unacquainted with hard graft, surrounded by a gilded elite.

One of the peculiar features of the whole Mitchell saga is that the only reason it was a “news” story at all was contained in tangential relevance to the wider problem with Cameron’s leadership. (Few people outside Westminster know or care who a chief whip is and what he does). Yet Cameron appears to have been the very last person to think that Mitchell’s outburst was significant. That is why Tory MPs are so cross with their leader. He neither grasped the emblematic power of the incident, nor found a way to contain the story once it was running. He – or rather the Number 10 operation he runs - showed faulty initial judgement and followed it up with ineffective political technique.

Even that doesn’t get to the essence of why this particular resignation is revealing. Most resignations do little lasting damage to a government and it is too early to say if this one will be any different. I think it does matter in one crucial respect: To recap - Mitchell didn’t resign over something momentous he had done or because the Prime Minister lost confidence in him as a result of things he was alleged to have done. He resigned because the stench of brand decay hung about him. It is the first instance I can think of where someone was sacked not because of something they said, but because of something representing just the kind of thing they might be expected to say.

The implications of this for the Conservatives are pretty serious. The same phenomenon could be observed on Friday afternoon when it emerged that George Osborne sat in a first class seat on a train without the ticket to go with it. This became a media event not because of evidence that Osborne intended cynically to evade his fare or kicked up a fuss when challenged. No such evidence exists. It became a story because sitting in first class with a standard ticket and pointedly refusing to move for fear of proximity to the great unwashed is, in the public imagination, just the sort of thing Osborne might be expected to do.

This is a step beyond ordinary communications problems. It signals the arrival of a new phase in the cycle of political decay. This is the point where the government struggles to get its message out because the official line cannot compete with negative stories that reinforce a pre-established hostile narrative. Anything that appears to support the worst interpretation of what it means to be a "typical Tory" in the Cameron-Osborne mould is newsworthy – pretty much regardless of whether it actually happened. And these were supposed to be the people to “decontaminate” the brand. No wonder Tory MPs are worried.

Former Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell, who resigned last Friday. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.