The embattled Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell has had messages of support from 70 MPs over the continuing fallout from his rant at police officers, it emerged yesterday.
As the House of Commons returns for the first time since last month's incident at the gates of Downing Street, David Cameron continued to support Mr Mitchell, despite senior police officers calling on the minister to quit over his alleged "pleb" remark.
Signs of an "Operation Save Andrew" began to emerge after extraordinary levels of disquiet from ministers about the row during the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham last week.
One minister said the incident had made the Prime Minister "the angriest I've ever seen him", raising questions over why Mr Cameron failed to sack Mr Mitchell.
The Chief Whip returns to his desk in Downing Street tomorrow to resume "business as usual", according to sources. One friend said the minister had received about 70 messages of support from Tory MPs and that the 14 whips under his command were "solidly behind him". But there are many MPs, including at least four members of the Cabinet, who doubt that he can hang on to his job.
The row failed to die down after Mr Mitchell held talks with three members of the West Mercia and Warwickshire police federations at his constituency office in Sutton Coldfield on Friday. Mr Mitchell reiterated his apology but refused to tell the officers exactly what he said, apart from insisting that he did not use the word "pleb".
Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, accused the Police Federation of fuelling the row "for their own purposes". He told Radio 4's Any Questions?: "We've now got other people who were not involved in the incident who seem to be trying to hijack this issue and take it forward for their own purposes."
It is understood that Mr Cameron and Mr Mitchell have not held a full discussion about the matter, apart from it being mentioned in passing. But one minister said several leading members of constituency associations had approached him to complain about Mr Mitchell's behaviour. "People are asking when Mitchell will go," the minister said, "and it's difficult to disagree with them. David has let it go on too long."
A No 10 spokesman said: "The Prime Minister thinks what he did was completely unacceptable, but he has apologised to the officers who don't want to take it any further."
Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "David Cameron is the only person left still backing Andrew Mitchell. How long is the Prime Minister going to let this drag on?"