Andrew Mitchell has become the latest politician to discover the high cost of a moment of madness. Of course, if he could re-run the offending sequence, he would surely do it differently. When the police officer declined to open the main gate to let him through, he would dismount obediently from his steed and wheel it through the side entrance, precisely as directed. He would also perhaps attempt a friendly salute, even offer a respectful word or two in tribute to the two Greater Manchester police officers killed in the course of duty. If only he had resisted the temptation to vent the frustrations of his day.
For whatever happened at the gates of Downing Street last Wednesday evening – and we have still not heard the definitive version from both sides – it was very definitely not this benign scenario. It was a bad-tempered stand-off involving a senior politician, who cut up extremely rough with people who were just doing their jobs – people on whom, in some circumstances, his life might depend.
True, there are aspects of this saga that are almost comic. Mr Mitchell was doing the right thing, eschewing an official car for his bike. He was trying to leave Downing Street, not get in, so his right to be there was not in doubt. And he had only just been promoted from International Development Secretary to Government Chief Whip, so he had every reason to be feeling good. Instead, he found himself in the public pillory and facing demands for his resignation.
Yesterday – Day Five – in another probably vain effort to shut the whole episode down, Mr Mitchell repeated his apology for the benefit of the media, and the Prime Minister expressed his full confidence in Mr Mitchell, while rejecting calls from Labour and the Police Federation for an inquiry. Nick Clegg, for the Liberal Democrats, sat solidly on the fence, appealing for the full truth to be told.
What is now clear is that this affair is not, as it might first have appeared, a storm in a teacup. It has done, and continues to do, damage. As things currently stand, however, Mr Mitchell has not committed a resigning offence. He lost his temper in a way that a public official should never do. He has apologised, and the apology was accepted. He is not – yet – a repeat offender.
There is very little that can be said in mitigation. As Mr Mitchell acknowledged, having a bad day is no excuse for his behaviour. There are also details that exacerbate his offence. The very recent police killings is one of them. Another is the swearing; this might in some situations be grounds for arrest, but in any case it reflects very badly on an MP. Then there is his new job. As Chief Whip, he is responsible for discipline among Conservative MPs; if he cannot control his own temper, is he really the best person for that job?
Mr Mitchell has undoubtedly tarnished his own reputation. But the damage to his party and the Government he serves is at least as great. When the word "plebs" is deemed worse than four-letter words, our culture has reached a pretty pass. But the reason that word – which Mr Mitchell denies using – is so toxic, is that it reinforces the image of Conservatives as born into privilege and entitled to rule. This allows the police, who are already at odds with the Government, and Labour to make hay. No wonder they want to keep the incident alive.
Mr Mitchell's offence requires an abject apology – which he has given – and a stiff reprimand, which was surely issued by David Cameron even before public opinion had its say. That should be the end of it, even if the political fallout, with or without the p-word, will not be so easily erased.Reuse content