The Plebgate affair: The cold revenge of Andrew Mitchell

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The PM was quick to accept his Chief Whip's resignation, but a staunch defence by the MP's friends, plus vindicating CC TV footage, have forced a change of heart

In his letter accepting Andrew Mitchell's resignation on 19 October, David Cameron wrote "I regret it has become necessary" for the Chief Whip to leave the Cabinet over his altercation with police at the gates of Downing Street.

His tone was cool and businesslike, concluding: "As you have acknowledged, the incident in Downing Street was not acceptable and you were right to apologise for it."

Yet it is now known that, at the time, the Prime Minister had, along with his Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, viewed CCTV footage that blew a hole in the police's version of events. Mr Cameron knew there was a discrepancy between the grainy footage, revealing no public witnesses, and an email forwarded by John Randall, the Deputy Chief Whip, from a "witness" – now revealed to be a police officer – claiming the minister had shouted very loudly at police, calling them "plebs".

The difference had clearly persuaded the Prime Minister to stand by Mr Mitchell in the early weeks of the "plebgate" affair. But Mr Cameron, it seems, did not feel inclined to dig further to get to the bottom of who had sent the email that, he admitted at PMQs last Wednesday, "blackened" the name of a cabinet minister.

If he had, Mr Mitchell's allies say, he could have been firmer in insisting the minister hang on to his job. He could have released the footage to Mr Mitchell before he resigned, giving him the ammunition to clear his name.

The Prime Minister, amid the pre-Christmas excitement of his children at Chequers yesterday, took time to sanction an extraordinary statement from Downing Street which suggested he regrets not saving Mr Mitchell from his cabinet departure.

In the statement, Mr Cameron at once threw a protective arm around Mr Mitchell, while also squaring up to the police. The premier perhaps noted the threatening words of Mr Mitchell's friends, who accused Mr Cameron of leaving him to "swing in the wind". But it was also a display of typical pragmatism from the PM: just like he had waited until Mr Mitchell's situation looked beyond hope before accepting his resignation, he was now leaping to the MP's defence because there were serious doubts about the police story.

Mr Cameron knows that Mr Mitchell, and his allies, including his close friend David Davis, can be a powerful threat. When Mr Cameron and Mr Davis were rivals in the 2005 Tory leadership contest, it was the older MP who expected to win. The Davis camp, including Mr Mitchell, his campaign chief, ran a fierce race. A friend of Mr Cameron said: "The PM respects Andrew, but it is a respect learnt through being on different sides of the battle in 2005. Does Cameron fear him? He knows he is well-organised, let's put it like that."

To many Cameron allies, the Mitchell affair has been a long-running debacle, of which "plebgate" is only the latest act. The PM is, even for many of his admirers, paying the price for a series of miscalculations.

One Tory MP said: "David [Cameron] was under no obligation to give him a job, but he did – and it was against the advice of a number of people he'd normally listen to. He put him in the Cabinet as some sort of grand gesture, something about a 'big tent' strategy, and it's been causing him problems ever since."

Mr Mitchell always insisted he had never used the word "pleb". He admitted to swearing at police officers, which is borne out by the police log. But the log also records the word "pleb", and it was that dispute which allowed the row to continue for a month. Now Mr Mitchell feels exonerated, partly, because the fake witness email clearly shows a concerted campaign to "stitch him up". The MP is determined to clear his name fully by questioning the police log, and to get back into the Cabinet. He is exacting revenge on the police who dared to block his bicycle, but he also seems determined to force Mr Cameron to unlock the gates of Downing Street and beg him to return. The strength of the attack by his allies yesterday, and the PM's response – to rush to his support – shows who has the upper hand here.

Last Monday Mr Cameron did open the No 10 gates to Mr Mitchell – to meet him to discuss the CCTV footage that was to be broadcast by Channel 4 the next day. The Prime Minister told journalists on a visit to Afghanistan on Friday that the ex-minister was "calm and rational given what were very disturbing revelations" – already trying to smooth ruffled feathers.

And there were signs last night that there is more to come out in this murky affair. The journalist Charles Moore, who knows Mr Mitchell well, suggested that a political insider had been involved in the "stitch up". Moore wrote in The Daily Telegraph: "Who except a political insider would know that the Deputy Chief Whip, John Randall, has a reputation for not getting on with Mr Mitchell? Who but a political or media operator would have the idea of setting up one of Mr Randall's constituents to send him an email pretending to be... a concerned member of the public?"

In his letter of 19 October, Mr Cameron wrote that he hoped Mr Mitchell would "be able to make a further contribution to public life". It now seems that the Prime Minister has little choice but to allow his return.

What are the facts?

THE INCIDENT

What we know

Andrew Mitchell swore at police as he attempted to ride his bike through the gates of Downing Street on 19 September.

What we don't know

He insists he didn't say "pleb"; two police officers present who wrote the official log say he did.

What we need to know

Who is telling the truth – the MP or the police officers? The official log says there was an angry altercation, but CCTV footage suggests Mr Mitchell was calm.

THE EMAIL

What we know

Someone claiming to be a member of the public sent an email to John Randall, Mr Mitchell's deputy, saying they had witnessed the MP calling officers "plebs". The author is actually a third serving police officer, and has now been arrested.

What we don't know

Who is the 23-year-old man arrested on suspicion of helping the third officer? Was anyone else involved?

What we need to know

How did the third officer and his alleged accomplice know that Mr Randall would be the best person to contact? How did they know that Mr Mitchell do not get on?

THE PRIME MINISTER

What we know

David Cameron and Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood saw the CCTV footage before Mr Mitchell's resignation in October and decided it undermined the case made in the email by the "member of the public". But they did not show it to Mr Mitchell.

What we don't know

Did the PM take any more steps to get to the bottom of the incident?

What we need to know

Why didn't No 10 confront the police officers on duty? If the PM realised the CCTV undermined the email, why didn't he fight to save Mr Mitchell?

THE POLICE

What we know

Met commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe backed the official log last week, but now says he is awaiting the outcome of the police investigation.

What we don't know

How far up the chain of command in the police was there a coordinated attempt to "blacken" the name of a Cabinet minister?

What we need to know

Why was there such a concerted effort to bring down Mr Mitchell? Were there political participants too? Was Mr Mitchell being used to get at Mr Cameron? Why did the West Midlands, West Mercia and Warwickshire police federation representatives say they were told nothing new when they met Mr Mitchell in his constituency, when he had given them new and full details of what he said?

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