The "Plebgate" affair is no longer simply a matter of whether Andrew Mitchell did or did not spice up his expletive-laden altercation with a Downing Street policeman with derogatory references to class. The latest allegations – that corroborating testimony volunteered by a supposed civilian passer-by was, in fact, put forward by a serving police officer who was not present – put an altogether more serious complexion on the matter.
Much attention will now focus on whether the former Chief Whip was unfairly hounded from office. After all, not only is the substantiating evidence apparently fraudulent, but CCTV footage only now made public also suggests the spat was much shorter than the disputed police report containing the lethal "pleb" allegation implies. But Mr Mitchell's career is the lesser issue here. Of far greater moment are the doubts that the debacle casts on the integrity of the police.
Any number of questions now beg for answers. The issue of who leaked the police log to the press is still unresolved. Even more pertinently, the officer sent the allegedly dissembling emails closely paralleling the official account to his MP before such details were publicly available. Where, then, did the information come from? Indeed, how many people were involved and what was their aim?
It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of the situation. A police officer bearing false witness would be reprehensible enough in any event; in an attempt to force the dismissal of a minister of the Crown, it is nothing short of subversion of the state. Perhaps these were the actions of a disgruntled few acting on their own initiative. Given the strained relations between the Government and the police, however, dark hints of a wider conspiracy cannot be dismissed out of hand. It is up to the police to fill in the gaps and to do so quickly. The Police Federation in particular – which waged a vituperative campaign against Mr Mitchell – must swiftly clarify its position.
The implications do not end there, though. While the manoeuvrings against Mr Mitchell are discreditable enough on their own, no less serious is their impact on the already battered reputation of the police. The vast majority of officers, of course, deserve both commendation and gratitude. But this is just the latest in a decades-long series of scandals that has chipped away at confidence in the integrity of Britain's law enforcers. Indeed, yesterday's High Court ruling ordering fresh inquests for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster only emphasises the point, following as it does the revelations of a massive police cover-up to shift the blame for the tragedy.
Nor, sad to say, was Hillsborough a one off. Time and again – from the botched investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, to the dubious disciplinary record of the policeman who man-handled newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson, to the back-handers from newspapers exposed by the phone-hacking scandal – police culture has been shown to be unduly secretive and inclined to prioritise the protection of its own.
No one comes out of Plebgate well. Even without the "pleb", the row hardly shows Mr Mitchell in a positive light. There are also questions for No 10, not least why the identity of the supposed onlooker was not checked before. But such matters pale into insignificance next to the murky role played by some members of the police. This newspaper has long advocated a full-scale inquiry into the police establishment, perhaps modelled on the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics. The latest twist in the Mitchell affair makes the case stronger than ever.