Disciplinary for Government’s chief disciplinarian

Politics editor Thom Hollick recounts Conservative Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell’s spot of bother and speculates about the consequences.

Freshly appointed Conservative Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell has come under fire this week for hurling a torrent of verbal abuse at police officers outside Downing Street. The Minister was apparently riding his bike away from Number 10 when a police officer refused to let him use the main gate, instead insisting he use the smaller pedestrian gate to the side.

The exchange that followed differs somewhat depending upon whether you believe the officer or the politician, but went something like this: the police officer explained that it was policy not to open the main gates for cyclists, but Mr Mitchell insisted that he always uses the gates, and pointed out several times that he is Chief Whip. After eventually giving in and walking through the pedestrian gates he turned on the police officers present and shouted in full public view: “Best you learn your f***ing place…you don’t run this f***ing government…You’re f***ing plebs.”

Mr Mitchell admits to losing his temper and swearing, and that he did not treat the police officers with the respect that they deserve, however he disputes using the word ‘pleb’. This is perhaps unsurprising due to its unpleasant elitist implications. For a Tory minister, it would seem that coming across as a toff who sees people in other professions as inferior to him is probably much more damaging than being seen to swear, an action that some might see as evidence of his mortality.

Since the row, Mr Mitchell has profusely apologised, to the Prime Minister, to the Metropolitan Police, and to the individual officers involved, and they have all accepted his apology. Nonetheless, the story is refusing to die because of one thing that the officer pointed out to Mr Mitchell at the time: it is an offence to swear at a police officer. When warned of the possible criminality of his acts, Mr Mitchell did give in and cycle away, but said “you haven’t heard the last of this.” How correct he was.

Whose account of the incident is correct? Andrew Mitchell, who claimed he had just had “a long and extremely frustrating day,” or the police officer, who is trained to make accurate notes of what is said in situations exactly like this one? The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has said he believes his minister’s account of what transpired, but others including Boris Johnson have put their faith in the procedures of the Metropolitan Police. By implication, that means there is a case for re-opening an investigation.

Could Andrew Mitchell lose his job over this, so soon after starting? It seems unlikely at this stage, as he still has the confidence of the PM, who is responsible for all hiring and firing. The Police could attempt an arrest, but it seems likely that they too would like to avoid that. No one really wants to see the government torn apart by criminal prosecutions, except maybe the opposition.

No, most of the parties involved would like to see the issue closed for good, but because of the negative class dimension, the media have just run and run with it. Is this what all Conservative ministers think of the rest of the population, or was this just one man losing his cool? Either way, being in a political office is not a qualification that puts you above the law that governs the rest of us.