David Cameron defends Andrew Mitchell amid fresh sacking demands

 

David Cameron was forced to defend his chief whip again today amid fresh demands for him to be sacked over his notorious confrontation with police.

Labour leader Ed Miliband used the first Prime Minister's Questions since the incident last month to launch a furious attack on Andrew Mitchell.

Pointing to Mr Mitchell, sitting near David Cameron on the Government front bench, Mr Miliband insisted he should have been arrested like any other "yob" who had sworn at officers.

"While it is a night in the cell for the yobs, it is a night at the Carlton Club for the chief whip. Isn't that the clearest case there could be of total double standards?" he said.

"His position is untenable. In other words, he is toast."

But Mr Cameron accused the Opposition leader of focusing on "clever political questions" rather than the big issues facing the country.

"What the chief whip did and what the chief whip said were wrong. I am absolutely clear about that," he said.

"That is why it was important that the chief whip apologised and that apology was accepted...

"The apology has been accepted by the officers concerned, it has been accepted by the Metropolitan Police."

The Premier added of Mr Miliband: "He doesn't want to talk about what we need to do in this country to get our deficit down, because he has got no policies."

At one point Mr Mitchell appeared to deny having sworn at police, shaking his head and apparently mouthing "I didn't, I didn't" as Mr Miliband said that people who swear at police should expect to be arrested.

In response, the Labour leader said: "He says from a sedentary position he didn't. Maybe he will tell us what he actually did say.

"Yet, according to the official police report - and I quote - a man claiming to be the Chief Whip called the police 'plebs', told them they should know their place and used other abusive language. Can the Prime Minister now tell us: did the Chief Whip use those words?"

A senior Labour source later said that Mr Mitchell's apparent denial made it all the more essential for it to be made clear exactly what the Chief Whip said.

"This could be very easily cleared up by Number 10 saying exactly what was said," the source said.

"If anything, this reinforces the need for them to be completely clear about what Mr Mitchell did say when he insulted the police."

Mr Mitchell arrived about 20 minutes early for Prime Minister's Questions and took his position at the end of the Government front bench, three spaces down from Mr Cameron and seated alongside Leader of the House Andrew Lansley.

He looked tight-lipped and tense throughout the exchanges, shaking his head and mouthing "no" as Mr Miliband accused him of calling the police "plebs" and "ranting and raving", then nodding as Mr Cameron defended him.

The silver-haired MP for Sutton Coldfield roused himself to join in Tory cheering as Mr Cameron accused the Labour leader of focusing on the Chief Whip because he had nothing to say about more serious issues.

At one point a Tory heckler told Mr Miliband to talk about "real issues". The Labour leader responded: "I think it is a real issue, abusing police officers.

"Just because a police officer has better manners than the Chief Whip, it doesn't mean he should keep his job.

"If a yob in a city centre on a Saturday night abused a police officer, ranting and raving, the chances are they would be arrested and placed in the back of a police van, and rightly so. And the Prime Minister would be the first in the queue to say it was right."

Mr Miliband added: "Here's the most extraordinary thing. They say that I practise class war, and they go around calling people 'plebs'. Can you believe it?

"I have to say it's good to see the Cabinet in their place supporting him in public, but in the newspapers, what are they saying in private? He's completely undermined. his position is untenable. In other words, he's toast. That's the reality.

"Here's the truth about this Government. Whilst everybody else loses their jobs, the Chief Whip keeps his. If you're a millionaire you get a tax cut, if you're everybody else, you get a tax rise. They are totally out of touch. With this Government it's one rule for those at the top and another rule for everybody else."

Speaker John Bercow had to step in twice to demand calm from MPs, as loud barracking from the Tory side threatened to drown out Mr Miliband's questions.

But the chamber fell into a solemn and respectful silence once more when the exchanges about Mr Mitchell were immediately followed by a question about missing Welsh schoolgirl April Jones.

Mr Mitchell received a supportive slap on the arm from Tory minister Matthew Hancock as his 30-minute ordeal ended.

Mr Cameron accused Mr Miliband of wanting to "discuss these issues because he's got nothing serious to say about the country".

But the Labour leader replied that the abuse of police officers was a "real issue".

"Let me tell you the truth about this government: Whilst everybody else loses their jobs, the chief whip keeps his," he added.

He added: "They say that I practise class war and they go around calling people 'plebs'."

Mr Mitchell faces another stern test this evening when the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers gathers.

Some MPs question his ability to enforce discipline in the wake of the controversy.

But Cabinet minister Ken Clarke told BBC Radio 4's World at One the issue was being "taken out of all proportion", and blamed the Police Federation.

"The Police Federation are trying to remind us that they are a powerful trade union," he said. "Most people listening to this programme have at some time lost their temper, said something they should not, and had to apologise fairly abjectly afterward when they felt ashamed of themselves."

Asked if Mr Mitchell would still be chief whip in a year's time, the veteran frontbencher said: "Unless something else funny happens, yes of course he will.

"A rather belated witch hunt is now being run, built up largely because the Police Federation keep pushing it along - they have other scores with the Government at the moment and they are trying to put the fear of God into all of us about falling out with the Police Federation."

Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary Michael Moore also insisted that Mr Mitchell was staying in his post.

"I think we have seen an unfortunate series of events for which Andrew has apologised in the most profuse terms," he said.

"The Prime Minister dealt with this very early on and drew a line under it. I appreciate that there has been continued controversy around it, but I believe it is very clear Andrew is staying in his job.

"We will work very closely with him in our part of the coalition and get on with delivering the Government's agenda."

Conservative MP Michael Fabricant said later that Mr Mitchell had "reignited" the row over his outburst by denying swearing at police.

In a series of messages on Twitter, Mr Fabricant said: "Several MPs have confirmed to me that AM did indeed say at PMQs 'I didn't swear' (at the police). This puts a whole new light on the issue.

"Oh dear. Labour were never going to let the story go away, but now he has managed to reignite it himself. Self-ignition?"

Mr Mitchell has always made clear that he disputes the words attributed to him in press reports of the police record of the incident, but has not explained precisely what he does recall saying.

In his only public statement since the incident, he said: "While I do not accept that I used any of the words that have been reported, I accept I did not treat the police with the respect they deserve."

PA

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