Let’s stop exaggerating the significance of Mitchell-gate and move on

The bad-tempered outburst by the Conservative Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, against a policeman (or policewoman?) who wouldn’t open the gates to Downing Street to allow him to ride his bicycle through them, has predictably prompted a storm of criticism of Mr Mitchell and several acres of print gloating over what it reveals about Tories, toffs, chief whips and other undesirables.  Commenting earlier today on one of the more moderate pieces, on the website LabourList, I wrote:

I don’t disagree with anything [in that post], but I think it greatly exaggerates the significance of the whole thing.  This was an intrinsically trivial incident, which told us absolutely nothing that we didn’t already know about the attitudes of Tory (and indeed other) toffs to those whom they regard as the lower orders.  We don’t even know whether Mitchell used the word ‘pleb’:  indeed the whole script given (or sold?) to the Sun newspaper (presumably by the police or someone acting for them) reads very strangely, looking much more like a police approximation in imagined toff-ese than what a toff is actually likely to have said.  Clearly he swore, doesn’t deny it, and has apologised for it; and anyway ‘pleb’ is hardly the most insulting word in the language, especially as it so obviously says more about the speaker than the person spoken to.

The whole episode has been absurdly inflated by a number of those with an axe to grind:  the police, as a weapon in their war with the government over their pensions and police numbers, on which it’s by no means obvious that the government is in the wrong;  by the Sun, with an evident interest in keeping the story running for purposes of circulation, advertising revenue and kicking the toff class in their sensitive areas; and, I’m sorry to say, by the Labour party as an opportunistic and ungenerous stick to beat the Tories with.  Perhaps it’s too much to expect Yvette Cooper to have taken a more understanding and perhaps humorous line on the whole thing, which would have done her some credit; but to demand some kind of public inquiry, as the Labour party is now doing, seems to me absurd verging on despicable.

It’s worth remembering that Mitchell was a good, progressive and courageous International Development Secretary, who defended the policy of increasing overseas aid up to the UN target against howls of protest from his own more primitive colleagues and at a time when everything else was being savagely cut.  Moreover, it’s rather pleasant to reflect that any character defects revealed by the DowningStreetGate-gate incident seem certain to make him an extremely disagreeable and alarming chief whip in his dealings with Tory MPs:  so much the better.

Full disclosure:  for a year or two Andrew Mitchell and I were members of a small non-political committee which helped to promote debating and public speaking skills in schools and universities, etc., although he wasn’t very often there at its meetings.  I found him tough, very sharp, very practical, probably ruthless, always perfectly courteous — all ideal qualities for a chief whip.  He wouldn’t have been my first choice as a companion on a camping holiday, but then I’m sure that I wouldn’t have been his, either. It was obvious that we were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and not temperamentally close.  I don’t instinctively urge that high-powered Tories should be given the benefit of the doubt when they commit the kind of crass blunders that real humans tend to do, but Mitchell’s bad-tempered outburst was not a hanging offence by any conceivable standard, and I think he should now be left alone and allowed to get on with his vital job of terrorising his fellow-Tory MPs.

I don’t expect this post to go down well here or on Labour List, but I’ve said what I think and I don’t plan to reply to hostile or other comments on this occasion, having rather a lot of things to do in the next few days in Real Life, as we call it.

PS: I’m reliably informed that Andrew Mitchell is not a member of the Cabinet. Apparently not many people know that — just as not many people seem to know that Nick Clegg didn’t apologise for breaking his pledge on student fees (he apologised for the pledge).


15 Responses

  1. Alan says:

    Ah you gave yourself away by owning up to knowing the man.  Even the worst Tory politicians have a charming side. The fact that we won’t tell anyone what he actually said is indicative of guilt…so he lied and he behaved badly.  Is this really acceptable?  He should have stayed at the Foreign Office.

    Brian writes: Alan, I’ll ignore the crack about the Foreign Office, especially since Mitchell has never, to the best of my knowledge, been either a member or a minister at it. But (a) my having met him a few times doesn’t affect my judgement of Mitchell-gate in any way whatever (and I don’t recall identifying a “charming side” to Mr Mitchell in any case); and (b) his refusal to disclose what he actually said to the copper can’t possibly be equated with lying. How could either he or indeed the police officers involved possibly remember Mitchell’s words so accurately as to be able to produce a verbatim record of them? They were not recorded, as far as we know, and what purports to be a verbatim record made by the police is so unnatural and peculiar that I’m inclined, on the balance of probabilities, to believe Mitchell when he says that whatever he said, it wasn’t what the police say he said. Nothing in that qualifies as a lie. Incidentally, contrary to the usual sloppy media reports, he hasn’t denied using the p-word, and he has admitted to swearing.

  2. Oliver Miles says:

    Bravo, Brian. What a fuss about nothing.
    One aspect of the reporting which has been entertaining in a black sort of way is the language used by the class warriors of the commentariat. My favorite example so far, Simon Hoggart in the Guardian comparing Mitchell’s apology to “two upper-class urban foxes copulating.”
    Amid the calls for Mitchell to be sacked not much attention has been paid to the return to government of David Laws after two years on the naughty step. Whose offence is more serious? I wish him no harm, but if you or I, Brian, had been caught helping ourselves to £50,000 of unjustified expenses when we were in the [diplomatic] service, it wouldn’t have been two years.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Oliver. By coincidence I have just posted a new piece both on my blog (https://barder.com/3749) and on Labour List (http://labourlist.org/2012/09/david-laws-and-the-50-tax-rate-is-this-worse-than-calling-a-cop-a-pleb/) attacking David Laws for a deliberately misleading remark about the coalition’s reduction in the 50% marginal rate of income tax, although I deliberately refrained from alluding in it to Mr Laws’s expenses episode lest I be thought to be prejudiced by it. But I certainly agree that he got off extremely lightly. However I made the point in that blog post that his offence in deliberately misrepresenting the effect of a marginal tax rate in order to justify LibDem acquiescence in reactionary behaviour by the coalition is incomparably more objectionable than calling a police officer a p***!

  3. Mary says:

    What a lot of fuss about nothing – he had a bad day at the office and how many of us have not lost it like that?   A public enquiry – ridiculous.

    I also have a lot of experience of police officers ‘exaggerating’ to suit themselves – the man has apologised – let’s get on with real work.  

    Brian writes: Amen to that!

  4. Michael Hornsby says:

    In principle, I agree that the incident on the face of it is a classic case of a storm in the Westminster Village teacup. But Mitchell has dug a deeper hole for himself by being – to put it charitably – less than honest about exactly what he said. OK, it’s his word against that of the police, and we know that the Old Bill is not always above tampering with the evidence if the Hillsborough affair is anything to go by. But the record of the police blog of the incident published in today’s Daily Telegraph has the ring authenticity to me, and it seems there were also members of the public present who heard Mitchell’s rant. Here is the account of the Telegraph story in the online newspaper The First Post:

              The Chief Whip was told that it was “policy” for cyclists to use the pedestrian gate but he claimed that he “always used the main gates” and initially refused to do otherwise.                                                                                                                      A colleague of the female officer who wrote the incident report continues: “After several refusals, Mr Mitchell got off his bike and walked to the pedestrian gate with me after I again offered to open that for him.
              The note was written immediately after the incident, because the police feared Mitchell would make a formal complaint. The note details that, last Wednesday evening, Mitchell was speaking to a female PC, who is named in the log, “demanding exit through the main vehicle gate into Whitehall”.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          “There were several members of public present as is the norm opposite the pedestrian gate and as we neared it, Mr Mitchell said: ‘Best you learn your f****** place… you don’t run this f****** government… you’re f****** plebs.'”
              The officer noted that members of the public looked “visibly shocked” by Mitchell’s language and the Chief Whip was warned that he if he continued to swear he would be arrested under the Public Order Act.
              The police record notes: “Mr Mitchell was then silent and left saying ‘you haven’t heard the last of this’ as he cycled off.”
    Read more: http://www.theweek.co.uk/politics/gategate/49189/andrew-mitchell-dead-man-walking-pleb-log-published#ixzz27TsfX9i6 


    I have to say that on this occasion I find the police version convincing. If Mitchell had owned up at once to the words used and said that he simply lost his temper at the end of a tiring day – as we’ve all done no doubt – and apologised appropriately, I think the incident would have been a two-day wonder. But if he’s found to have lied, and by implication to have accused the police of lying, it takes on a different aspect.

    Brian writes: Well, Michael, I’m afraid we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. I don’t believe that either the police or Mitchell could possibly be expected to produce a word-for-word verbatim account of what either side said in the heat of that moment, and the version which the police claim is a verbatim record (and which looks authentic to you) looks exceedingly inauthentic to me — it reads like the kind of police reconstruction in stilted and unnatural English of what a witness has said during a long interview and which the witness is asked to sign as a true record. Can you seriously imagine a government minister, or anyone else come to that, saying in the course of a bad-tempered rant, ‘Best you learn your f****** place‘? It reads like a piece of dialogue out of G A Henty.

    Mitchell’s case, reading between the lines, seems to be: “I can’t possibly give you an exact word-for-word account of what I said, and I wouldn’t even if I could because I know how every syllable of it would be used against me for the rest of my career, but I know damn well that I didn’t say what the police claim I said.” He has not denied using the word ‘pleb’, which everyone has suddenly discovered to be obscene and taboo (news to me!), and he has not accused the police of lying, even by implication: all he is saying is that if this is what they think he said, their recollection is unquestionably faulty. Nothing in any of that remotely resembles a lie. He has admitted to the swearing and apologised for it. The police officer concerned, apparently a woman, has accepted the apology and doesn’t wish for any further action to be taken. The Cabinet Secretary and the Met Commissioner have agreed that there’s no case for an inquiry and that with acceptance of the apology a line should be drawn under the whole affair. Mitchell’s reputation has been gravely damaged, more than he deserves in my view: to impose an even greater penalty on him by dismissing him as chief whip would be grotesque. The only unanswered question now, it seems, is who passed the police side of the story to the Sun newspaper and to the Daily or Sunday Telegraph, and whether money changed hands in that context. And that’s one for Mr Justice Leveson, surely?

  5. Tony Hatfield says:

    Ahh Brian, this is a cunning plan. Keep Thrasher and  Jeremy Hunt and any other Tory with baggage in the Cabinet and abracadabra there’ll be a political price to pay in 2015.

    Brian writes: Tony, I agree, but I suspect that there’ll be a price to be paid before 2015: would you like to be a Tory MP responsible for your behaviour and votes in parliament to Thrasher Mitchell? In my view they deserve each other.

  6. Michael Hornsby says:

    Brian, I entirely agree the whole thing has been absurdly overblown. An inquiry would indeed be ridiculous, and a line should now be drawn under the affair. That said, I think you are leaning over backwards to be charitable to the unlikeable Mitchell. No one expects him to recall exactly every word he said, but I am sure he knows perfectly well that the gist has been accurately reported by the police. I don’t find his alleged choice of language that peculiar – Mitchell did after all go to Rugby, a very G A Henty sort of place, though now evidently mainly populated by Flashmans rather than Tom Browns. Not that Henty would ever have used the F word, I have to say. Why didn’t Mitchell just say something along the lines of: “Yes, I did lose my temper after a long and tiring day, and said some things I should not have done. I apologise unreservedly to the police who were just doing their jobs”? End of. He would done himself much less damage. Instead he coupled a formulaic apology with a blustering pretence that he had nothing really to apologise for because he had never said any of the words attributed to him. Given Mitchell’s implication that the police had made most of it up, it’s not particularly surprising that they should have passed their record of the encounter to the Fourth Estate. Definitely not one for Mr Justice Leveson. He poses quite a big enough threat to freedom of speech as it is.

  7. David Campbell says:

    Mitchell’s outburst is a classic. Almost as memorable as that earlier one – who was it? – that was dismissed with the comment, “John is John.”

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. Might you just possibly be thinking of m’Lord Prescott, Baron Prescott, of Kingston upon Hull in the County of East Yorkshire — a much underrated and unfairly derided politician?

  8. Jenny Evans says:

    Well Mr. Plod, if that comment of “pleb” whether factual or poetic licence by our rags offended you, then you are in the wrong job, or perhaps need to get out more. Heaven help us all.

    Brian writes: Hear, hear! (Except that there seems to be evidence that the offended copper may have been Ms rather than Mr Plod — PC Plod, anyway.)

  9. Alan says:

    People are missing the point…clearly it is not of great significance in the worldwide scheme of things, but Mr Mitchell’s attitude typifies the reality of the Tory Government’s attitude:  public face “we are all  in this together” Reality: “we are the rich rulers and the rest of you are mere plebs”.  As for the thought that the police would invent the word ‘plebs’ is ridiculous. I suspect a large number of police did not know the meaning of the  word which comes from the Latin meaning ‘common people’.  And it is  not the word plebs that could cause arrest but the use of the F word several times.  To cap it all he showed huge arrogance in returning the next day to try it all over again. Symptomatic of Tory thinking. And no Brian this should not be swept under the carpet, maybe not a public enquiry but a quick resignation will do nicely. By supporting his Minister, Cameron in effect is accusing the police of  lying.

    Brian writes: Alan, please see my response to this in a separate comment.

  10. Mary says:

    Jenny – you are so right – any police officer who is ofended by ‘swearing’ and ‘pleb’ is in the wrong job.   I watch some of the police reality programmes on TV and most police oficers put up with far worse abuse from drunk and drugged members of society – unless it is just an act for the TV cameras!

    Doea Alan really expect a resignation over such a matter?   Could everyone just get on with their work and stop making mountains out of molehills? 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, all of which I enthusiastically second.

  11. Brian says:

    @Alan:  Thank you for your further comment (here).  As I wrote in my original post, the incident has told us absolutely nothing about the attitudes of Tory (and other) toffs that we didn’t know already.  No-one, AFAIK, has suggested that the police “invented” the word ‘plebs’: it’s well and widely understood anyway.  Contrary to many media reports, Mr Mitchell has never publicly (nor, as far as we know, privately) denied having used the word ‘pleb’ — and so what if he did?  For a long time the Downing Street gates have been opened to allow ministers in cars and on bicyles to ride through them without the cycling ministers having to stop, dismount, and push their bikes through the pedestrian entrance and then remount:  the sudden alleged change of policy on this seems on the face of it petty and unwarranted, and I see nothing arrogant about Mitchell subsequently testing whether they would open the gates for him when entering Downing Street as distinct from leaving it.  And, finally, there seems no basis at all for saying that Cameron has either “supported his minister” — on the contrary, he has repeatedly said that what he did was unacceptable and that he was right to apologise — or “in effect” accused the police of lying.  On virtually every occasion when two parties to an argument subsequently write down their accounts of what was said, the two (or more) accounts will differ materially from each other.  That doesn’t mean that either side was lying.  Mitchell has very sensibly declined to disclose his own recollection of what was said, but he has said emphatically that he is certain that he didn’t say what the police say he said.  That is not by any stretch of the imagination an accusation of lying.  The idea that this is a resigning matter seems to me — er, far-fetched, to put it as politely as possible.

    I notice, Alan, that you offer no comment on the question of which police officer gave the Sun newspaper an account of the argument, which police officer gave the Daily Telegraph a copy of the official police log of the incident, and which if any police officer authorised either or both of these malicious — and potentially lucrative? — breaches of the rules governing leaks of official information to the press.  Nor do you speculate about how the spokesman of the Police Federation came by the police account of the incident in order for him to exploit it in the context of the Federation’s campaign against the government’s proposed cuts in police pensions and numbers.  Nor apparently do you have a view on whether it’s appropriate for a police trade union to demand the resignation of a government minister.  On the face of it this whole thing provides further evidence of the unhealthy, verging on corrupt, relationship between sections of the media and sections of the Metropolitan Police, on top of what the Leveson inquiry has already exposed.  That seems to me far more obviously significant than anything said by Mitchell when he lost his temper over a matter of the utmost insignificance, whatever the precise words that he uttered.  So clearly we’ll just have to continue to differ about all this.

  12. Betty Ratzin says:

    Hear! Hear! What a tempest in a teacup.

    As always you eloquently put the case for what the rest of us mere mortals are trying to articulate.


  13. Brian says:

    Geoffrey Wheatcroft points out in a definitive article in the Guardian that it’s the police, not Andrew Mitchell, who still have pointed questions to answer: http://t.co/kjqFyK3l.  After that, further comment seems to me superfluous.

  14. john miles says:

    Who’s more likely to be lying – a politician or a cop?
    Force me to bet on it, and I’d say, “Both.” 

    Brian writes: In the specific situation discussed in this post, I’d say ‘Neither.’ There’s no evidence whatever that either Andrew Mitchell or the police officers involved in this trivial incident have deliberately sought to mislead us about who said what. It’s hardly surprising that their recollections differ: it was clearly a heated exchange. Both sides behaved badly: Mr Mitchell by losing his temper and swearing at the police, and the police by threatening, absurdly, to arrest Mitchell and by passing their side of the story to the Sun and Telegraph newspapers, not to mention to the Police Federation, their union, to exploit in the context of their dispute with the government over pay, pensions and police numbers. The key difference, in my view, is that Mitchell almost immediately apologised for his bad behaviour, but we are still waiting for an apology from the police for theirs. Where does lying come into it? (Don’t bother to answer that, John. It doesn’t.)

  1. 20 October, 2013

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