Andrew Mitchell was back. In his first Commons speaking role since his short-lived appointment to the job of Chief Whip – a period when quite a lot happened to him, like briefly becoming the most notorious cyclist in the Western world after Lance Armstrong – he was finally up before the beaks.
Well not exactly. He had been invited by the International Development committee to talk about the decision, on his last day as Secretary of State, to grant Rwanda's government £16m in budget support despite complaints that it was backing a murderous group of rebels in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
This promised a rare, real-time glimpse of Mitchell dealing with the authorities, if that's not too fanciful a description of yesterday's exercise in parliamentary accountability. And which of us there can say we did not secretly fantasise that Mitchell would suddenly lose it and at least blurt out to the committee, in recognition of its support for Britain's aid programme but in vexation at its persistent questioning, what he has admitted he told the police that evening: “I thought you guys were supposed to f***ing help us”?
In that respect he disappointed. He had the highest respect for the committee, he assured it. But beneath his polite exterior he was clearly cross about suggestions that he had rushed through a decision to sock Rwanda half the cash due to it while two apparently more fastidious donor countries, Germany and the Netherlands, had refused to do so. It had been a “profoundly consultative” decision, he said, with the Foreign Office and No 10 fully “in the loop”. And so far from being “out on a limb”, Britain was actually in the “middle of the pack” by granting the first tranche of cash, since the US and the EU had continued to disburse aid.
But there was a wrinkle that the session failed to iron out, despite strenuous efforts by Labour's Richard Burden to do so. A 31 August letter that Mitchell sent to David Cameron said: “Reporting shows that practical support for the [DRC rebel group] M23 has now ended.” Yet Mitchell seemed far from sure – despite repeated UN and NGO claims to the contrary – that there had been any such support.
This was somehow reminiscent of the old mid- 20th century argument between those eminent philosophers Bertrand Russell and Peter Strawson about the statement “The King of France is bald”. If there is no King of France, Russell said, then the proposition is untrue. No, Strawson said, it isn't untrue – just meaningless.