The former Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, deserves to be back in the Government at the earliest opportunity. He should never have resigned in the first place.
I make both assertions without knowing Mitchell very well or being able to judge whether or not he would have been an effective Chief Whip. But his career was wrecked without any definitive evidence and careers should not be wrecked on such a flimsy basis.
The saga reveals more about the anti-politics era that we are living through. There’s the assumption that the elected minister is always at fault. “Noble” accusers are trusted – their nobility reinforced because they are attacking a politician. There’s the hunger for disproportionate punishment to be meted out, even if the evidence is obviously inconclusive. The role of Twitter comes in to this – hyping up the frenzy, making it almost impossible for individuals to survive the storm. And the panic-stricken reaction of political media managers makes matters worse for the central figure caught in the storm. Here is a familiar brew, and one that at times makes democratic politics extremely fragile.
Of course, there are complicating factors in this drama. There are always complicating factors. No one disputes that Mitchell lost his temper with the police officers as he attempted to cycle out of Downing Street. That is enough in some people’s eyes for a ministerial sacking. In my eyes, such an angry exchange is worthy of only minor interest.
Another complicating factor is that we still do not know what form the exchange took. I would be very surprised if Mitchell is lying in his adamant insistence that he did not call the officers “plebs”. But I do not know for sure. That is the point. Mitchell should not have been forced out for the simple reason that there was no proof he accused police officers of being “plebs” along with various other full-throttled insults.
If there were such proof, resignation would have been inevitable although even then not wholly deserved. I have some sympathy with Mitchell’s fury at being impeded by police officers. He was hardly a security threat. Apparently, in the exchange he exclaimed: “You’re meant to be here to help us.” Maybe he declared “You’re meant to be here to f***ing help us!”, which changes things a little. Still, he had a point. Presumably, officers knew who he was as he cycled angrily along. I’m not sure what was achieved in not letting him through.
There are many elements to this story. Parts of the Police Federation appear to be out of control, perhaps seizing on the Mitchell saga as an element of their campaign against the Government’s cuts and reforms. While it is legitimate and indeed justified to mount campaigns against government policies, there was a sense even before Mitchell resigned that some from within the Federation were getting over-excited. A common theme emerges. Publicly funded institutions – the police, the BBC – sometimes hide behind the deserved general respect that they command. A parochial insularity can form.
Whatever other failings, no one can accuse cabinet ministers of that. Most of them live in fear that they will be out of a job within months. Some are relieved if they survive until the end of a day. As far as Plebgate is concerned, internal No 10 enquiries were inconclusive, carried out more casually, it seems, than the revelatory investigations of Channel 4’s Michael Crick, who brilliantly exposed the flaws in the police evidence on Tuesday. To his credit, David Cameron resisted the immediate frenzy that demanded Mitchell should be sacked. The resistance was not entirely due to a principled sense of justice. Cameron had only just appointed Mitchell as his Chief Whip and did not want another reshuffle. Still, it takes a degree of resolution to resist malevolent hysteria that accompanies the blood lust against elected politicians. Cameron resisted. On the basis of what they did when in office, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would not have done.
Mitchell did not go because Cameron’s resolve collapsed. The hysteria showed no signs of subsiding, making it impossible for him to have the authority required of a Chief Whip. Losing weight, fearful of attending his party conference, reading each day that “Thrasher” Mitchell should go, he went. In a surreal but wholly familiar pattern, his nickname, acquired because he was a disciplinarian as a pupil at Rugby, almost became part of the reason why he had to go. Thrasher had given the police a good thrashing. When a high-ranking minister is in trouble, unrelated stories conflate to form the caricature of a monster. Politicians are human beings. In the end, they give up when faced with a barrage of sustained hostility that no journalist could cope with for more than 10 seconds.
In the midst of such storms, the so-called spin doctors make mistakes. This seems to have happened in Mitchell’s case. His refusal, in staged public appearances, to deny unequivocally that he had uttered specific, damning words, appeared to be an implicit acceptance of guilt. But Mitchell’s old friend David Davis suggested yesterday on the BBC that Mitchell was uttering his evasive words under the strict instructions of the No 10 media operation and at that point No 10 could not be sure he had been telling the truth. As a result, the minister’s attempt at damage-limitation damaged him fatally. I can understand why No 10 media figures were not sure-footed in this case. While they had no definitive evidence that Mitchell was guilty, they also had no material to prove he was innocent.
One of the great myths about British politics is that ministers cling to their posts outrageously, refusing to let go under any circumstances. The opposite is closer to the truth. Too many of them – particularly members of the Cabinet – are forced out prematurely.
Peter Mandelson should not have been sacked the second time. Charles Clarke should not have been removed from the Home Office. When frenzy erupts, panic follows and careers are wrecked. Jeremy Hunt is the exception to the rule, lucky to still be in the Cabinet when there was such damning evidence in the form of emails from his special adviser to News International, but even in Hunt’s case there is no proof that he knew what his adviser was up to. If Thrasher Mitchell is angry, he has cause to be.
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