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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.