The Gentlemen's Clubs of London are often the butt of humourists. It is frequently asserted that they are repositories of dullness and bufferdom, with bad food and worse conversation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ones which have survived are exceptionally well-run, which is only possible because they have a first-rate staff. The Clubs have not grown old without acquiring ancestral cunning. Over the decades – and centuries – they have learned how institutions should conduct themelves. In pursuit of such wisdom, they have all adopted a rule or convention which has a more general applicability. A Club member should never have a row with a member of staff. If there is a complaint, it should be made to the Secretary. This avoids unseemliness.
Government Ministers would be well advised to do likewise. That said, let us keep a sense of proportion. It is alleged that for about two minutes, Andrew Mitchell behaved in the way Gordon Brown did for most of his three years as Prime Minister. That is hardly worth a week's news.
Moreover, those who delight in embarrassing Mr Mitchell should consider the wider implications. Why do we have policemen on duty in Downing St? Are they employed to act as pompous, strutting jobsworths? Surely not. It may be unfashionable to say so, but they are there to make life easier for the important people who work at the heart of government. If Andrew Mitchell wants to cycle through the main gates, they should jump to it and open those gates.
If you disagree, what about the consequences for the rest of us? At this year's Trooping of the Colour, a chum of mine was in St James's Park. To have a better view, he climbed on a bollard. A copper came along and told him to get off. Politely, my friend asked why. "If you fell off, who would you blame?" asked the policeman. "Me" replied my friend."I'd blame myself". At that stage, one might have hoped that the PC would have chuckled, said "Fair enough, Sir, but please take care". Instead, he turned nasty and told my pal that unless he did what he was told, he would be arrested for a public order offence. For a second, my friend pondered. What possible public order offence could that be? Ought he not to take a stand for the liberty of the subject, and gently warn the policeman about the consequences of a suit for wrongful arrest? But if he did that, what lies would the plod tell to buttress his case? My friend has a life to lead, so he climbed down, in both senses.
The combination of little Hitlerism, health and safety and political correctness is alarming. We are all in favour of public order. We all wish that the police were better at maintaining it, by dealing with burglary, street crime, knife crime and serious outbreaks of disorder. But there is a growing sense that the police prefer easier targets and would prefer to harass the law-abiding whom they should be protecting. Even if there were a lot of laughs at Mr Mitchell's discomfiture, there is a widespread view among the respectable classes that the police are not providing an adequate service.
In the Tory party, there is a similar if shallower feeling about David Cameron. Mr Cameron still has many advantages. Especially when he goes abroad, he always looks Prime Ministerial. The Labour Leader merely looks Prime Milipedial. But there is a problem, which Mr Cameron has consistently refused to recognise. Millions of voters still have no clear idea who he is or what he believes. This creates a vacuum, and politics abhors a vacuum. So it fills up with rubbish about poshness and toffs and class.
That is silly, but the PM is to blame. Suppose you were to ask a hundred voters a simple question: what is this government for? There would only be a tiny number of intelligent answers. Two years ago, people might have mentioned fixing broken Britain, rolling back the big state in order to create room for the big society, and other hopeful themes. Now, it would be more a case of "We're here because we're here because we're here".
So fixing is needed. David Cameron has to explain himself. This would not be difficult. Once it happened, there would be immediate political benefits. Unless and until it happens, there will be a most damaging sense of drift. To judge by most of the opinion polls, the swing from Tory to Labour since the last election is under ten percent. In mid-term, that is nothing to worry about. But if there is no corrective action between now and the end of the Party Conference, Tory anxieties will grow – and it will be David Cameron's fault.