Until today, the assumption among most in Westminster was that Andrew Mitchell would eventually return to government, or another frontline position, as compensation for his resignation over the “plebgate” (or”gategate”) affair. The ruling handed down at the High Court this afternoon has destroyed that possibility for good. Having sued the Sun, which broke the story in October 2012, on the grounds that it lied by reporting that he branded the police “plebs”, the former Conservative chief whip has been comprehensively humiliated, found to have indeed uttered what the judge called the “politically toxic word”.
In addition to the likely end of his career as an MP (he will surely announce his resignation from parliament in due course), Mitchell faces legal costs of up to £3m, with £300,000 due to Sun publisher News UK and to the Police Federation by January.
“Obviously I’m bitterly disappointed by the result of the judgement today. This has been a miserable two years. But we now need to bring this matter to a close and to move on with our lives,” he told reporters outside the court. But while Mitchell understandably wishes to move on, the affair has inflicted permanent damage on the Tory brand, the word “plebs” standing as a permanent monument to the party’s perceived arrogance and snobbishness. After seeking to capitalise on Emily Thornberry’s resignation by painting Labour as an elitist outfit, this has been a terrible week for the Conservatives’ reputation.
On Tuesday, former cabinet minister David Mellor (who, by coincidence, was the guest speaker at Mitchell’s local association dinner earlier this month) was revealed by the Sun to launched an astonishingly vicious rant against a London taxi driver.
“You’ve been driving a cab for 10 years? I have been in the cabinet, I am an award-winning broadcaster, I’m a Queen’s Counsel, you think your experiences are anything compared to mine? Just shut up,” he said, delivering a deathblow to the nation’s satirists. “Drive me whichever way you want, and keep a civil tongue in your head.”
As Lord Ashcroft and other pollsters regularly testify, the biggest obstacle to a Conservative majority remains the belief that they are “the party of the rich”. It is hard to think of two incidents – “cabgate” and “plebgate” – more perfectly designed to confirm that perception: posh men talking down to their social lessers.
That the two men at the head of the party, David Cameron and George Osborne, are both from well-heeled stock (Tim Montgomerie once observed that you’d never find them on a US presidential ticket together) means the Tories need to go to great lengths to persuade voters that they can be trusted to govern for “the many”, not “the few”. Just five months away from the general election, Mitchell and Mellor’s behaviour has made that an even more forbidding task. As the woman of the week, Theresa May, once phrased it, the Tories look like “the nasty party”.