Tories defend under-fire Andrew Mitchell


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Indy Politics

Labour MPs today attempted to pile the pressure on embattled Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell amid renewed demands for him to be sacked over his row with Downing Street police.

Shadow leader of the House of Commons Angela Eagle claimed Mr Mitchell kept "changing his story" and challenged him to divulge to MPs "what he actually did say".

Andrew Lansley defended Mr Mitchell in the Commons from a flurry of remarks from the Opposition benches relating to Mr Mitchell's confrontation with officers, saying he was "doing his job well".

Yesterday, Labour leader Ed Miliband used the first Prime Minister's Questions since the incident last month to denounce Mr Mitchell, saying he should have been arrested like any other "yob" who had sworn at officers.

And at last night's weekly meeting of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee at Westminster, four Tory MPs were said to have voiced concerns about Mr Mitchell's position.

Speaking today at the start of Commons Business questions, when Mr Mitchell was absent from the chamber, Ms Eagle said: "As the Leader of the House has already announced, next week there'll be an Opposition day debate on the police.

"There's a long standing convention that the chief whip in this House is seen, but not heard. The current Government Chief Whip who is inexplicably not in his place today, would be well advised to observe that convention outside this House too."

"We know the police's account, they report the Chief Whip saying that police officers were 'plebs, who should know their place', now I've missed out the expletives. Mr Speaker.

"The Chief Whip keeps changing his story and I would have wanted to say to him, had he had the courtesy of this House to attend today, that he should come to the despatch box and tell the House what he actually did say, but perhaps he's too busy repairing relations with the Conservative backbenchers to bother to attend Business questions."

Leader of the House of Commons Mr Lansley replied: "The Chief Whip is doing his job well ... the Chief Whip knows and made clear that he had made a mistake, he apologised for that, The police officer concerned accepted it and the Metropolitan Police accepted it.

"I will take no lectures today or indeed next Wednesday when the Opposition day debate on the police takes place about the support this Government gives to the police."

To laughs from the Opposition benches, Labour's Clive Efford (Eltham) asked: "Can we have a debate on the place of plebs in society?

"The worst aspect of what the Chief Whip said to those police officers was that they should know their place and a debate like this would give him the opportunity to actually get up on his feet and give us the truth about what happened, but also give those of us who consider themselves to be plebs an opportunity to know just exactly what our place is."

Mr Lansley accused Labour of attempting to "make political capital" from the debacle.

He replied: "It's all very well trying to make political capital on the opposite side, but, actually, from our point of view, we support the police and we are getting on with that job and the Chief Whip is getting on with that job and doing a grand job doing it."

Part way through Business questions, Mr Mitchell walked into the chamber and took his place on the frontbench while appearing to chew.

Labour's Ian Mearns (Gateshead) said this year in Manchester two people had been arrested, charged, prosecuted and imprisoned for abusing police officers and in South Shields an arrest had taken place for a similar offence.

He said: "Can we have a debate on policing, prosecutions and sentencing as a matter of urgency I think it is very topical."

Mr Lansley maintained the matter was "frankly closed weeks ago".

He said: "Members of the public watching our questions and discussions might wonder whether it actually wouldn't be better for Members to devote themselves to the interests of their constituents and new issues, rather than constantly trying to contrive new ways of returning to an issue that frankly was closed weeks ago."

The police debate will give Labour MPs the opportunity to again raise Mr Mitchell's actions, although it is not expected that the motion will be focused on the Chief Whip.

Labour's Simon Danczuk has tabled a Commons motion calling for Mr Mitchell to have his pay docked by £1,000, the traditional method of forcing a vote of no confidence and also roughly equivalent to the amount he could be fined for swearing at police.

But a senior party source said this was not expected to be the motion chosen for the debate.

Speaking in the chamber, Mr Danczuk (Rochdale) asked if the issue was "surely worthy of debate".

Mr Lansley said it was "interesting" that so far there had been no request from Labour for a debate on employment.

Labour's Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) said that for "several weeks now the Chief Whip has struggled to answer questions about what exactly he said outside Downing Street.

"Is it time for a ministerial statement on ministerial answers?"

Mr Lansley responded: "No".

Raising a point of order at the end of the session, Labour's Wayne David (Caerphilly) said: "Given that the Chief Whip has been chewing for most of this session, is it appropriate for masticating to be allowed in the chamber?"

His query again drew laughs from the Labour benches.

Commons Speaker John Bercow replied: "I won't go into that. I would only say quite a lot of noise has been heard in the course of the last hour, but the Government Chief Whip has been as quiet as a church mouse."