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12 October 2012

Andrew Mitchell’s future hangs in the balance

Chief Whip will be told to "come clean" when he meets West Midlands police officers today.

By George Eaton

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.

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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.