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.