If Andrew Mitchell is cleared, Ed Miliband should apologise

The Labour leader should begin by backing Cameron's call for a swift investigation to establish the truth.

It was fun while it lasted.

"Plebgate" and the drawn-out resignation of Andrew Mitchell has been pure gold to Labour these past few months.

Here we had an aloof Tory politician – the government’s new chief whip no less - upbraiding dedicated public servants as "fucking plebs" for simply following security protocol and politely refusing his demand that Downing Street’s gates be opened so he could ride out on his bicycle. For their temerity in directing him to a side-gate they got a gob full of insults and threats. The depiction was damning: a government that is out-of-touch, arrogant, selfish and, most of all, posh. Specifically, Mitchell is alleged to have said to the officers on duty:

"Best you learn your f------ place...you don’t run this f------ government...You’re f------ plebs." 

So says the police’s log, leaked to the Daily Telegraph a few days after the incident last September, with Mitchell adding menacingly, "you haven’t heard the last of this". Although he admits using the ‘f’ word, Mitchell has always denied calling officers "plebs" or "morons". However his – and Downing Street’s – weak handling of the crisis made many assume the worst possible version of events had to be true.

It didn’t help that we were treated to tales of Mitchell’s quick temper which earned him the nickname "Thrasher" at school, while it was made clear time and again from enemies in his own party that he was damaged goods and unable to perform the role of parliamentary disciplinarian after showing little self-restraint himself.

That was then. Now we learn, courtesy of Channel Four’s Dispatches, that all is not as we had assumed. Leaked CCTV footage of that fateful night shows no angry confrontation with the police. There is no finger-jabbing or aggressive posture. Nor does the footage show "several members of public" who were "visibly shocked" by the episode, which the police log assures us was the case.

Perhaps most damningly, Dispatches uncovered that a constituent of deputy chief whip John Randall who wrote to the MP claiming to have witnessed the incident first-hand, including details that corroborated the leaked – and contended – version of events in the police log, turns out to be a serving police officer.

The plot thickens. As does the dilemma for the Labour leadership. Downing Street has demanded the police "get to the bottom of this as a matter of urgency", saying any allegation that a serving police officer "fabricated evidence" is "exceptionally serious". Meanwhile the BBC’s Nick Robinson reports that Boris Johnson has told Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe that he is “extremely concerned not just about this alleged wrongdoing but any suggestion of an alleged conspiracy” to damage Mitchell. This is significant as Boris was quite happy to pour petrol on the situation himself. He said at the time that it would have been "wholly commonsensical" for officers to have arrested Mitchell for his conduct.

Which brings us to Ed Miliband. Mitchell has been good sport. Back in October the Labour Leader goaded David Cameron over the "double standard" that while someone "abusing police officers" in the street would be arrested, Mitchell was being protected. "While it’s a night in the cell for the yobs, it’s a night at the Carlton Club for the Chief Whip," he quipped.

If it now turns out that Mitchell is a wronged man, and is only guilty of the minor indiscretion of saying "I thought you lot were supposed to fucking help us" (his admitted remark) then he is entitled to feel aggrieved at what has happened to him. A quick return to the cabinet might not be on the cards, but speedy and earnest apologies should be. And Miliband should be first in line.

Today he has the opportunity at the final Prime Minister’s Questions before the Christmas break to position himself against the real possibility that this issue will now move in Mitchell’s favour. He should strongly back the Prime Minister’s call for a speedy investigation to establish the full facts once and for all and concede that there now appears more to the story than everyone first thought. Indeed, Miliband urged such an inquiry when the issue came to light in September.

On the basis of never letting a good crisis go to waste, he should show us that "the new politics" he espouses means political leaders can show generosity to their opponents – and even contrition – in due course – if Mitchell is now cleared.

Former government chief whip Andrew Mitchell, who resigned in October. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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