David Cameron was last night forced into an extraordinary attack on the police, as he leapt to the defence of Andrew Mitchell over the "plebgate" affair.
The Prime Minister said he was "deeply shocked" that a serving police officer was being investigated for "lying" about the incident at the gates of Downing Street which later led to the resignation of his then Chief Whip.
Mr Cameron belatedly rushed to support the former cabinet minister after friends of Mr Mitchell accused the Prime Minister of leaving him "swinging in the wind" by failing to release CCTV footage that would have helped his case. And last night Mr Mitchell broke his silence by condemning elements in the police for a "sustained attempt to toxify the Tory party and destroy my career".
In an unprecedented statement from a PM about the police, Mr Cameron made clear his concern at the "fabricated evidence" and "lying" allegations that contributed to Mr Mitchell's downfall. While the words were directed at the police officer who posed as an ordinary member of the public who claimed the MP had called police "plebs", they will also put pressure on the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, for standing by the official police version of events.
But Mr Cameron also tried to fend off stinging criticism from Mr Mitchell's camp, who are enraged at the way the Prime Minister had failed to defend him fully. Mr Cameron's allies believe Mr Mitchell, who resigned as Chief Whip in October after weeks of pressure, could pose a danger to the Conservative Party as a disgruntled MP trying to clear his name from the back benches.
The statement was issued by Downing Street in a damage-limitation exercise on behalf of Mr Cameron, who had already departed for Chequers to spend Christmas with his family. It followed a devastating attack by friends of Mr Mitchell, who accused the PM of a lapse of judgement in not releasing the footage.
A No 10 spokesman said: "The Prime Minister has deep sympathy for Andrew Mitchell after allegations emerged that a serving police officer fabricated evidence against him. The Prime Minister stood behind his Chief Whip through weeks of growing demands to sack him. It was only when it became clear that he could no longer do his job that his resignation was accepted with reluctance. Andrew Mitchell did not disagree with the Prime Minister's approach throughout this period. The Prime Minister, and Andrew Mitchell, were deeply shocked to be informed that the police were investigating allegations that a serving police officer had lied about the events."
Mr Mitchell told The Sunday Telegraph: "These awful toxic phrases which were hung round my neck for weeks and weeks in a sustained attempt to toxify the Conservative Party and destroy my career were completely and totally untrue. I never said them. If you had told me on 19 September that the events revealed last week could take place in Britain today, I simply would not have believed you."
The row sparked back into life last week when Channel 4's Dispatches released CCTV footage showing that there were no members of the public to witness Mr Mitchell's altercation with police as he tried to cycle through the Downing Street gates on 19 September. This directly contradicted evidence given in an email from a "member of the public" who claimed to have witnessed Mr Mitchell calling the officers "plebs" – which the MP has always denied. It was then revealed that the email had been sent by a serving police officer. Mr Hogan-Howe announced that 30 officers are now investigating the incident, which is being monitored by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. It emerged yesterday that Mr Cameron had viewed the footage, yet still allowed Mr Mitchell to resign when his presence in the Cabinet became too toxic.
A close friend of Mr Mitchell described the No 10 response to the affair as "amateur hour", telling the Daily Mail: "It is just extraordinary they did not release something that could have knocked down the central piece of evidence against him. All they had to do was release 30 seconds of footage. To trade that against a wish not to upset the police seems to me to put expediency so far ahead of a sense of morality as to be mindblowing. It raises serious questions about Cameron's judgement. The approach was to leave this swinging in the wind rather than raise serious questions with the police."
The Downing Street statement went much further than Mr Cameron's words in the Commons on Wednesday, in which he cautiously expressed a wish for the matter to be investigated properly. His delay in coming to Mr Mitchell's defence, and failing to release the footage to Mr Mitchell sooner, raises questions over his judgement.
In a separate development yesterday, the Police Federation of England and Wales announced that an independent panel would review its "structure" under its new chairman, Steve Williams, who takes up his post in the New Year, amid concern that elements of the union were involved in a conspiracy to get at Mr Mitchell and, in turn, Mr Cameron, over police cuts.
The Dispatches programme revealed not only the CCTV footage, but also a tape of the meeting between Mr Mitchell and members of the West Midlands Police Federation. The MP, in his office in his Sutton Coldfield constituency, told the West Midlands officers the full details of what he had said at the gates – for the first time. But minutes later, the officers emerged calling on him to quit and claiming he had said nothing new. These differing accounts have also enraged Mr Mitchell, say friends.
3 September Andrew Mitchell appointed Chief Whip.
19 September Mr Mitchell allegedly calls Downing Street police officers "plebs" during argument over whether he could ride his bike out through the gates.
20 September The row escalates into a crisis after details are revealed in The Sun. Deputy Chief Whip John Randall receives emailed complaint over Mr Mitchell's behaviour.
21 September Mr Mitchell apologises for being disrespectful to police – but denies using the word "plebs".
4 October Mr Mitchell pulls out of Tory conference amid growing complaints about his alleged behaviour.
12 October Mr Mitchell attempts to defuse the row by meeting representatives of the Police Federation. They later claim his position is untenable.
19 October Mr Mitchell resigns.
15 December Police officer arrested on suspicion of misconduct.
18 December CCTV coverage casts doubt on police officers' version of events.
19 December Man aged 23 arrested.