Plebgate politician Andrew Mitchell – privileged upbringing and temper tantrums were his undoing

The single word that ended Mr Mitchell's career was one only a man of his background would use

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The Independent Online

Rugby, Cambridge, Lazard, Parliament: Andrew Mitchell’s life until the evening of 19 September 2012 was one of rarefied privilege even by the standards of Conservative MPs.

But his background, along with a fiery temper, was his undoing. Because the single word that ended his political career was one that only a man of his class and background would have used in anger.

The police may well be capable of making things up – but “pleb” was always an unlikely word for them to fabricate.

Contemporaries of Mr Mitchell’s at Rugby – although none that knew him personally – say that “pleb” was common parlance among the boys, who used it to describe the non-teaching staff at the school.

At Cambridge, the Latin slang was also used sotto voce by the same young adults to describe the college porters, cleaners and “townies” they came across. PC Toby Rowland – by that definition – was most definitely a “pleb”. Indeed one of the problems facing Mr Mitchell in the aftermath of the original allegations was that so many of his colleagues believed it was a word he might have used. And they also knew he had a temper.

The court heard evidence from a special protection officer who accompanied the then International Development Secretary on two trips to Africa in 2011.

Inspector Duncan Johnston said Mr Mitchell was “prone to temper tantrums” and at one stage “completely lost control”. Mr Johnston said that when Mr Mitchell stepped off a plane for a visit to refugees on the Tunisian/Libyan border, the minister ignored his outstretched hand and told him: “You must be the hired muscle.”

 

Then on a second trip to Kenya and Somalia, Mr Johnston said Mr Mitchell “launched a foul-mouthed tirade” after learning of alterations to the itinerary to avoid areas deemed to be unsafe. He claimed he was “just swearing for the sake of swearing”. He added: “He was unpleasant until he got what he wanted.”

Senior officials had also privately raised concerns about Mr Mitchell’s behaviour. He is said to have told his Permanent Secretary that he expected male officials in his department to wear jackets and ties at all times and wanted to be addressed as “Secretary of State”.

When told that, owing to the nature of the department’s work, formal clothes were not always practical, he insisted that at the very least ties should be worn by everyone at meetings he attended. 

He is also said to have preferred a particular coffee cup bearing the words: “Secretary of State for International Development”.

“He could be cantankerous and aggressive,” said one official. “He was respected because of the generous financial settlement the department got but he was a horrible person to do business with.”

Even fellow MPs found that he could be presumptive about his status. One Tory MP described how Mr Mitchell tried to get a reservation he had made in a Westminster restaurant cancelled – when he turned up without a booking and all the tables were taken.

“The maître d’ told me that Andrew Mitchell looked down the reservations list and demanded that he give him the table because he was the minister and I was just a backbencher,” he later recounted.

So what now? Mr Mitchell, who has significant inherited wealth, is unlikely to be bankrupted by the estimated £1m legal costs that he will have to pay. But like Jonathan Aitken – a Tory MP of similar background and privilege who was also brought down by a libel case – his political career is effectively over.

If the Conservatives win the next election David Cameron will be loathe to return him to the front bench. But even his enemies concede Mr Mitchell is clever and talented – and has a genuine passion for development and helping the world’s poorest people. That should be where his rehabilitation starts.

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