Whipped-up hysteria more than Mitchell deserved

The moment when he supposedly called a policeman "pleb" wasn't recorded by any particularly reliable source
  • @Simon_Kelner

I feel I have to begin this column by saying I have no partisan feelings towards Andrew Mitchell. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have never encountered Mr Mitchell, although if only half of what has been written about him is true, I am pretty certain we wouldn't get on. Nevertheless, I'd like to come to his defence. I know it is unfashionable position, but I believe he is a victim of an age when nuance and reason has been lost and the only reaction to questionable behaviour is public hysteria.

The case of Mr Mitchell and PC Pleb is a curious one. How do we know about it in the first place? Was it recorded on CCTV? Was there an independent witness who is prepared to verify who said what to whom? No, we know about the incident in which he is alleged to have called a policeman a "pleb" through a much more authoritative route; one that for many years has ensured such information has become public. A member of the Metropolitan Police force, no doubt using a speed dial, called the newsdesk of The Sun to report exactly what happened when the Conservative Chief Whip was asked to dismount his bike.

We should be thankful that, as well as keeping the capital's streets safe, the police feel it is their duty to bring to the attention of as many citizens as possible the errant behaviour of our elected representatives. That, surely, is why the policeman in question rang Britain's biggest selling newspaper, bravely overcoming any residual concerns about the closeness between News International and the Met that had been exposed during the phone-hacking scandal.

And I'm sure, too, that the report wasn't embellished. Of course no money changed hands, since that would be illegal. All I know is that Andrew Mitchell, in his resignation letter to the PM, maintained his position that he did not use the word "pleb" or "moron" or "any other perjorative descriptions" although he admits swearing.

Even in the circs, after a hard day's whipping, this is conduct unbecoming, although hardly enough to put his career in jeopardy. (And remember, also, that he was riding a bike: he wasn't sweeping past in a plutocratic ministerial Jaguar.) The full might of the Police Federation insist that he did use the P-word, and the F-word, and a few other words beside. And Mr Mitchell didn't help himself by shifting his story around.

But, in the end, it is one man's word against another. And in any case, can't we allow a politician to lose his rag (like we all have done, faced with the intransigence of officialdom) without needing to see his head on a pole? Maybe it boils down to the fact that Mr Mitchell, patrician in bearing and, by all accounts, high-handed in manner, is not a likeable chap. Not like the nice Mr Johnson. He once called the black inhabitants of Commonwealth countries "flag-waving piccaninnies" and now he's Britain's most popular politician. Mr Mitchell may have spent the weekend reflecting what Margaret Thatcher said when she stood down in 1990; words that seem even more fitting to today's politics: "It's a funny old world."