Sketch: World's greatest police? Hear, hear, says Mitchell

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The Independent Online

You couldn't help feeling sorry for Police minister Damian Green yesterday. Sitting next to Andrew Mitchell on the Commons front bench he must have felt as if he was back at a school assembly under orders to be friendly to a notoriously unpopular boy who had narrowly escaped expulsion.

You could almost see Green nervously asking himself if some of the opprobrium would rub off on him by osmosis. With the faintest of fixed grins he exchanged a few polite words with the Chief Whip between answering questions on crime – with MPs on all sides, predictably enough, outdoing each other in an orgy of praise for the men in blue, Labour in an attempt to leverage Plebgate into a claim to be the party of the police, the Tories to show that Mitchell's outburst had not dented their law and order credentials.

No one more so than Mitchell himself, who, while mainly contenting himself with nodding gravely, joined in sonorous shouts of "hear, hear" when Security minister James Brokenshire referred to the "greatest police force in the world".

It was certainly bad luck on Mitchell that his first day back coincided with Home Office questions. The onslaught started gently enough with Stephen Timms, suggesting with lethal understatement, that David Cameron's failure to praise the police in his party conference speech "presumably" reflected "the poor relationship between his benches and the Metropolitan Police following the altercation with the Chief Whip". This was language almost worthy of one of those ponderous handwritten reports from the constabulary itself, which the Government keeps saying it wants them to be freed of to fight crime. But all this was just part of a warm-up act for the shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper to confront Theresa May with the Home Secretary's own words to the Police Federation: "You put up with abuse and worse… and it's time we gave you all the respect you deserve."

By this time the now-deposed Health Secretary Andrew Lansley had replaced Green alongside Mitchell – not perhaps the most upwardly mobile of cabinet members to add lustre to his neighbour on the bench.

The great pro-police consensus broke down when it came to Jimmy Savile, with Tory MP Tony Baldry asking pointedly why "no credible complaints" against the fawned-on monster had "resulted in charges". You had to wonder whether Labour really want Mitchell out, rather than just damaged. And bemoaning the lack of police cells in his constituency – "there is no room in the nick" – Labour MP Stephen Pound may have hit on the real reason why Mitchell was not arrested that night. Perhaps there was nowhere in Cannon Row to hold him.