Will Andrew Mitchell be getting on his bike?
Norman Tebbit seems to hope so, while Jane Merrick, James Hanning and Rachael Day find the tetchy Chief Whip is short on friends in high places
Andrew Mitchell is "100 per cent" confident that he will be exonerated by any recording of his altercation with police officers guarding the gates of Downing Street, a friend said yesterday.
The Chief Whip was clinging on to his job after being accused of calling an officer a "pleb" and a "moron" as he tried to leave Downing Street on his bike, just one day after two policewomen were shot dead in Manchester.
Mr Mitchell admits swearing at the officers, but denies calling them "plebs", it was reported last night. The Chief Whip's camp insisted he had said, "Look, I'm the Chief Whip, I work at Number 9 [Downing Street]", before muttering, "You guys are supposed to fucking help us", according to a report in The Sunday Telegraph.
A friend of the minister told the newspaper: "He does not dispute he lost it a bit. It was in frustration at the episode and not aimed directly at the officers. It was the fourth time he had been at Downing Street that day – he is frequently allowed to use the main gate on his bike.
"He is absolutely not accusing anyone of lying."
The attempted clarification came after Conservative Nick de Bois had warned that Mr Mitchell was in "deep trouble" if evidence emerged disputing his version of events.
Mr Mitchell's cabinet position remained in the balance as No 10 sources made clear that it would be a resigning issue if it was proved that Mr Mitchell had lied about his language.
David Cameron has said Mr Mitchell's outburst was "not appropriate" but has so far resisted calls to sack his minister. The row raged on yesterday, threatening to damage further Mr Cameron's hopes of shedding the image of senior Tories believing themselves to belong to a ruling class.
The Police Federation claimed there were tourists who could act as witnesses to the scene on Wednesday, as well as CCTV footage which could be made available if the officer made a complaint, but it is not known whether there is an audio recording. It was also claimed that Mr Mitchell shouted at a female police officer moments before allegedly rounding on the male officer at the gates.
Friends of the Chief Whip made clear that if the officer's notebook showed the word "pleb" attributed to Mr Mitchell, that would not change the situation. One said: "Andrew is absolutely adamant that he didn't use the word 'pleb' or 'moron' or threaten the guy with his job.
"What nobody wants is to start a row with the police over this. In an altercation, things get heated and people's recollections can differ. Andrew's simply saying his recollection of what happened is very different. He didn't say those words ...
"He would be quite happy if there was some kind of proof of what was said, if there was a recording ... At the end of the day it is one person's word against another. But he is absolutely confident."
Yesterday some Tories defended Mr Mitchell. Ken Clarke, minister without portfolio, said: "I have known Andrew for a long time and he is a perfectly reasonable, courteous man with the same high regard for the police services as anyone else. He obviously had a flare of bad temper ... and has rightly apologised. I do think this should be allowed to set the matter at rest."
But the former Conservative Party chairman Lord Tebbit denounced Mr Mitchell's comments as "extraordinarily stupid". Writing on his blog, Lord Tebbit said: "Andrew Mitchell's outburst against a policeman strikes me as extraordinarily stupid.
"I can only assume that something must have been bugging the new Chief Whip ... The worry for the Prime Minister must be that the pressures on Mr Mitchell look to be slightly more than he can take. They should have a heart-to-heart talk before very long."
John Tully, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, told BBC's Newsnight on Friday that there was more than one police officer present during the incident, adding: "There may have been members of the public at the other side of the gate in Whitehall." Mr Tully said Mr Mitchell may have committed an offence under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
Mr Mitchell's fate depends on whether further damaging evidence emerges of his exchange with the police officer, but there seemed to be few in Westminster disposed to give him the benefit of any doubt. His relationship with Mr Cameron, while cemented in recent years by their shared enthusiasm for international aid, has never been particularly warm and was not helped by the pair having competed for the Tory nomination in several seats in the 1990s. Mr Mitchell came second to Mr Cameron in Witney, the PM's seat.
Mr Mitchell's ideological outlook is close to Mr Cameron's, although the former supported David Davis in the 2005 leadership election won by Mr Cameron. During that campaign, Mr Mitchell, 10 years Mr Cameron's senior, displayed a degree of the loftiness which may yet be his undoing when he said: "Someone recently gave me a few bottles of Château Latour 2000. I think it would be wiser for me to leave it in the cellar for quite a few years yet before I open it, and I would give the same advice to some of the younger leadership contenders."
Mr Cameron is known to have the occasional flash of temper, but his own patrician background shows an intense concern for being "good with staff", so Mr Mitchell's outburst will have enraged the Prime Minister on both a personal and a political level.
The former Tory MP Gyles Brandreth was quoted yesterday as saying Mr Mitchell is "the most ambitious man I know – almost crazy with ambition". The epithet "Thrasher", ascribed to him by some from his schooldays at Rugby, appears to be a Private Eye invention, but a contemporary from Ashdown House, the prep school he attended with Condé Nast boss Nicholas Coleridge and Treasury mandarin Sir Nicholas Macpherson, recalls him having "no friends, only interests". "He was known as Mitchellsnob, and he got to the point where anyone calling him that was reported to the headmaster – even then he was a little commissar. " When asked if such an outlook wasn't ideal for a future chief whip, the contemporary said: "Yes, but you need some charm to be Chief Whip."
Yet there were others who sprang to Mr Mitchell's defence. One friend said he had "always found him to be charming, a real gent". In his position as, first, shadow International Development secretary and later holding the cabinet post, he helped change Tory mainstream attitudes towards international aid. Mr Mitchell had been distraught by the death last year of his friend Christopher Shale, who was also close to the Prime Minister. Mr Shale had helped Mr Mitchell in the founding of Project Umubano, a volunteering operation in Rwanda which the MP for Sutton Coldfield set up in 2007.
What will decide the Chief Whip's fate?
The Police Federation says the police officers involved took notes of the altercation with Andrew Mitchell. If they reveal the words "pleb" and "moron", they could show Mitchell lied. But his friends say they are just the police version of events.
Crowds are ever present at the gates of Downing Street, and it is possible a resourceful tourist has footage of the exchange on a mobile phone – including audio. If Mitchell is heard saying the word "pleb", he's lied and must resign.
Downing Street's gates are monitored from several angles. There will be video of the incident – but no sound. Unlikely to be released unless the individual officer makes a complaint and requests it. Even then, expert lip-readers would have to be called in.
If no proof exists of what was said, then it's the Chief Whip's word against the officers'. But if someone like the fiancé or boyfriend of one of the female officers shot in Manchester last week called for him to go, the game would be up.
Grant Shapps's new embarrassment
Three weeks into his new job as Conservative Party chairman, Grant Shapps is embroiled in his third major embarrassment.
It was reported in The Guardian yesterday that at the same time that he was a Conservative parliamentary candidate for Welwyn Hatfield, the seat he won in 2005, he was touting for business under a false name. Mr Shapps took on the persona of moneyspinning web guru "Michael Green" when he attended a $3,000-a-head (£1,848) internet conference in Las Vegas in 2004.
The allegations emerged last Friday when a photograph of Mr Shapps – complete with Michael Green name badge – was spotted online. While in the shadow cabinet, "Mr Green" charged people £183 an hour for advice on how to make money from the web.
It is the latest detail to emerge from the politician's past life as an internet marketer. He has been linked to a number of websites that have been blocked by Google because of concerns over copyright breaches and plagiarism of content.
Reacting to the news yesterday, the Labour MP Steve McCabe, a member of the Home Affairs Committee, said: "Grant Shapps's multiple personalities and questionable business practices are becoming a major embarrassment to the Conservative Party." He demanded that Mr Shapps "make a full statement on his past and why he found it necessary to use an alias to conduct business".
But a Conservative spokesman has stated that Mr Shapps's business affairs have "always been entirely and properly declared with the relevant authorities".
The latest revelations follow a difficult few weeks for the cabinet minister, who was promoted from the junior housing portfolio to party chairman in the cabinet reshuffle at the start of September.
Within days of replacing Baroness Warsi, Mr Shapps was humiliated when news spread that he had given his Wikipedia entry a makeover: gone were references to "gaffes" and, bizarrely, O-level passes for the 44-year-old rose from four to five.
Barely one week later, amid concerns of possible fraud and copyright violations, Labour called for a police investigation into the How To Corp website, founded by Mr Shapps.
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