The Prime Minister thinks it important that the press should not dictate who serves in his government. He won that battle last week. The press had given up on what No 10 calls "scalp hunting". We had decided, reluctantly, that Andrew Mitchell could stay.
When Mitchell went, it was not because the media had bayed for his blood for so long that the pressure had become irresistible. It was because, as he said in his resignation letter, "it has become clear to me that … I will not be able to fulfil my duties". That was an admission that he lacked support among Conservative MPs. His duties as Chief Whip were to organise and persuade his fellow MPs to support the Government. If they didn't think he should be in the job, that was a problem.
Nor was it simply backbenchers who were his downfall. At Tory conference in Birmingham, the view that Mitchell should go was expressed privately at Cabinet level. And there was the suggestion, never quite confirmed but not denied either, that John Randall, the Serbo-Croat-speaking deputy chief whip, had threatened to resign if Mitchell did not.
The way in which "it has become clear" to Mitchell that he had to go reminds me of a scene I saw on a rush-hour Tube train, when a drunk man who was being obnoxious was simply eased out of the door by his fellow commuters. Nobody took the lead in getting rid of him; it was hard to see whose shoulders had turned to nudge him; but the General Will of the carriage was done.
In Mitchell's case, there was obviously an interaction between the press and the General Will of the parliamentary Conservative Party, but it was the MPs who were decisive.
So, just as in the case of Jeremy Hunt, the Prime Minister got his way. He was not proud that Hunt survived – "pride is not a word we would use," I am told – but he "felt very strongly" that Hunt had not done anything wrong in allowing Rupert Murdoch's bid for full ownership of Sky to go ahead. But, as with Mitchell, who did not survive as long, a fat lot of good it did him.
I may have to break the terms of my self-denying ordinance and mention Cameron's predecessor-but-one, but it is true that the current Prime Minister is in danger, once again, of learning the wrong lesson from The Master. Cameron thinks that the lesson is that you should not be pushed about by a media hoo-ha, whereas the lesson he should have learnt is that ministerial appointments are all but impossible to manage smoothly in the modern media environment, and that what matters is judgement.
It is odd that Cameron's loyalty to Hunt and Mitchell is often seen as laudable, whereas, for example, Tony Blair's second sacking of Peter Mandelson is described as a panicked, media-driven mistake before the facts had been definitely established. I do not agree. It was a shame, but I thought Mandelson had to go, and I think Cameron made a mistake in standing by Hunt and Mitchell. Leaving aside the Sky bid, I thought Hunt's treatment of his special adviser – "everyone here thinks you need to go" – revealed him to be unsuited to Cabinet office, and yet Cameron defiantly promoted him to Health, an important delivery department, in last month's reshuffle.
I thought Cameron made a mistake in not insisting that Mitchell step down straight away. Which is not the same as saying that I thought Mitchell deserved to resign. Indeed, I thought he was more sinned against than sinning. Being told that it is "policy" to wheel your bicycle through the pedestrian gate is monstrous anti-cyclist discrimination (and jobsworthism of the highest order). Losing your temper and swearing at a police officer is a sin, obviously, but it may not be a crime. The Court of Appeal quashed a conviction last year, ruling that police officers are used to hearing the f-word, which is "rather commonplace", and that it was unlikely to cause them "harassment, alarm or distress". It was the police who, in breach of their rules, gave the story to The Sun.
But this was no time for sentiment, or for what Mitchell called in his resignation letter "the rights and wrongs of the matter". Cameron should have recognised that Mitchell would be unable to do his job well enough, and it is an important job, given the rebelliousness of this lot of Tory MPs, and been as ruthless as Blair.
Still, the right decision was arrived at in the end, and the damage done to Cameron is not so serious. To the extent that floating voters knew who the Chief Whip was and cared that he was a police-abusing toff, they will now forget.
As for Downing Street's fantasy that the fuss over Mitchell distracted the press last week from reporting the falls in unemployment, inflation, borrowing, crime and hospital waiting lists, Theresa May's triumph over evil American extradition law and Cameron's triumph over Alex Salmond, I can only say: dream on. Mitchell's resignation distracted most of the press from gleefully putting George Osborne's "Great Train Snobbery" on the front page.Reuse content