Plebgate trial sifts fiction from fact: 'PC Plod is the Toyland constable, is he not?'

Two years after that Downing Street encounter, Andrew Mitchell brings libel case against 'The Sun' to the High Court

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Indy Politics

When it comes to swearing, the former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell is “no slouch”.

That was according to Bob Geldof, no less, a man with a justified reputation in that department himself, but Lord Coe also accepted the former minister’s language was “fruity”, and even Mr Mitchell himself has admitted he swears too much.

The key question of whether or not the former cabinet member swore on one particular occasion by calling a policeman a “f*****g pleb”, however, remains to be answered and finally reached the High Court yesterday.

More than two years after the notorious Downing Street confrontation and the subsequent “massive media sh**storm” that brought him down, Mr Mitchell, 58, appeared in the witness  box on the first day of his libel trial yesterday.

He admitted he was an abrasive character, but denied he had ever used the toxic phrase that prompted a “vitriolic press campaign” and resulted in his eventual resignation.

“My Lord, I did not say those words – I would never call a policeman a pleb, let alone a f*****g pleb,” said the MP for Sutton Coldfield, who admitted using bad language from “time to time” during a hearing that frequently turned the air blue.

The question of whether Mr Mitchell was abusive, patronising and had a “capacity for menace” towards police officers will come under close scrutiny over the next fortnight. There will be evidence from politicians, officers and technical experts, as well as witness statements from Mr Geldof and Lord Coe on Mr Mitchell’s behalf, but not hiding his propensity for swearing, the High Court heard.

The hearing centres on claims by Mr Mitchell that his 27-year political career has been brought low by a “web of lies, deceit and indiscipline” through a plot against him by “rotten officers” and their union, the court heard.

In an account written that night, policeman Toby Rowland accused him of calling officers “f*****g plebs” when Mr Mitchell was stopped from leaving Downing Street through the main gates on his bicycle in September 2012.

The politician’s denials that he had used the term “plebs” was undermined by a supposed witness account of a passer-by sent to Mr Mitchell’s deputy that “shook the confidence” of the Prime Minister, David Cameron,  in his minister, said James Price, QC, counsel for Mr Mitchell. Mr Mitchell eventually bowed to what he called a tsunami of hostile coverage and quit his post a month after the episode.

It later emerged that the witness was an off-duty police officer who was not at the scene and was later jailed for his role in the deception.

“Did he, as PC Rowland claims, call the police f*****g plebs and tell them they best learn their f*****g place in a ghastly caricature of an attitude of mind which has been outdated for decades?” Mr Price asked. “Or did he [Mr Mitchell], as he unwaveringly maintained… mutter under his breath: ‘I thought you guys were supposed to f*****g help us?’”

Mr Mitchell was a “Jekyll and Hyde” character capable of switching from unpleasantness to charm once he had got his way, said Desmond Browne, QC, for Mr Rowland.

The court heard that he had previously clashed with his police security detail during two trips to Africa when he was previously International Development Secretary.

One officer claimed he was told during a discussion about travelling into Libya that it was a “bit above your pay grade, Mr Plod”, Mr Browne said.

“PC Plod is the Toyland constable in Noddy stories, isn’t it? He is remarkable for his ineptitude,” Mr Browne said. “He’s the constable who always gets it wrong.”

“I don’t recall such a pejorative analysis,” Mr Mitchell said. He said he could not recall the “PC Plod” exchange.

Mr Mitchell was also accused of being behind a pattern of behaviour in which he had been curt with officers working at the gates of Downing Street. In one incident in November 2005, Mr Mitchell was accused of calling an official a “little s**t” and told him that he was an “MP and I’m too important to stop for you”.

Mr Mitchell said he would not have stated that he was  too important.

He was also accused of saying “Chop, chop” as he waited at a gate on another occasion, which Mr Browne said was akin to addressing coolies in 1920s Shanghai.

Mr Mitchell is suing News Group Newspapers, the publishers of The Sun, which ran the story of the confrontation based on the evidence of a police whistleblower who was later sacked. Mr Mitchell is being sued in turn by Mr Rowland after the former minister accused him of making up the story.

The court heard that Mr Mitchell went to Antigua for a week after The Sun published the “Plebgate” story to recover from the “tsunami” of vitriol and write his own account of what had happened.

He later sought help from an old friend, the novelist Robert Harris, for his resignation letter and an article for The Sunday Times which laid out his account of the Downing Street confrontation.

The case continues.