By Paul Goodman
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I was first elected to the Commons in the year that Andrew Mitchell returned to it – but he had far more selection trouble than I did. A network of right-wing party activists pursued him across the true blue seats of England like the Furies pursuing Orestes. His record enraged them: he had been a whip at the time of the Maastricht Bill, helping to guide it through the Commons (an even worse crime, in their view, than murdering one's mother). But it was evident that something else – something as intangible as it was pervasive – was also getting their goat. After all, his fellow Maastricht Whip, Greg Knight, was seeking to get back to Parliament at the same time. But Knight didn't provoke the same wrath.
Mitchell didn't seek to suck up to the likely leadership election winners in that year, 2001. Instead, he voted for his friend David Davis – another member of the ex-Maastricht Whips club – who was never going to win the contest. "I hear you've made a wise decision," he said to me in the lobby one evening: I had declared for Davis, too. I didn't know Mitchell at all at the time, but was about to know him better. With Andrew Selous and I, he was the third Conservative member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee. My standard for a fellow committee member is that he support my amendments and laugh at my jokes. This is perhaps not a very high standard, but Mitchell cleared the bar comfortably. He was what Tory MPs call "a supportive colleague".
When the next Conservative leadership election came round, he filled the role that David Maclean had occupied in 2001: campaign manager – and was comprehensively stuffed by his opposite number on the Cameron campaign, George Osborne. Mitchell ran a top-down, Parliamentary campaign. Osborne ran a bottom-up, grassroots one: he grasped at once that if his man – at one point the outsider in the contest, a young MP who'd served a mere Parliamentary term – was to defy the odds, the contest must be turned upside-down. He, Cameron and Steve Hilton used their CCHQ-honed network of contacts to schmooze the media, and thus prepare the ground for a smash-and-grab raid on the party.
Cameron gave a glittering performance at his campaign launch. He then gave another very well-judged one at the party conference. Davis is not a conference star and had a wonky script (for which I take my share of the responsibility). Tory MPs then followed where the activists were already going – to Cameron. "I want to say right at the start of this campaign," Mitchell had declared back in the happy summer, when David was the clear front-runner, "that at some point things are bound to go wrong: they always do." These were prophetic words, and he became frayed and frazzled as the Davis campaign staggered on to its doom. But I don't recall him losing his temper, let alone swearing.
My instinct on hearing of the "Gategate" row was that he should go. Very soon, reflecting on my memories of working with Mitchell and watching the Police Federation campaign against him, I changed my mind: I didn't see why the Federation should decide who the Government's Chief Whip should be. The most likely explanation of the difference between the police and Mitchell's version of what happened seems to me to be a simple difference in memory, rather than anyone lying. But what I or anyone else think about what happened scarcely matters. Mitchell has gone. But the row has clarified for me what that intangible something, that pervasive something is: that quality which stirred Tory activists to try to keep him out of Parliament.
The watchword of one of my oldest friends is: Character Is Destiny. Mitchell has gifts. He is intelligent. (You don't get to be a Director of Lazards by being a slouch.) He is able – whatever one believes about overseas aid policy, there's no doubt that he completely mastered the brief – and, contrary to report, he can laugh at himself. But his sense of what an MP is, and what he is, is out of time in the Twitter age. With his family connections to the Commons, his banking and military background, and the fine wine and all that is a certain sense of status. I suspect that to Mitchell, despite the culture change that has gone on around him, to become an MP is automatically to assume it.
But any status that an MP has in these times can't simply be acquired: it must be earned. Journalists don't reflexively defer to MPs. That this is so may explain Mitchell's tense relationship with the lobby, which ultimately helped to bring him down. And policemen don't either – certainly not when they are responsible for who is admitted to Downing Street and who isn't. Whether Mitchell did or didn't use the P-word, the main point shines through: he believed that he was entitled to enter Downing Street through the main gates. He thought that this entitlement came with being the Government's Chief Whip – a post that, despite his discreet indications to the contrary, I think he has long wanted, has long seen as part of his self-image.
In Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, the novel's central character, Sherman McCoy, gestures towards Manhattan, with a girl at his side and the world apparently at his feet, as he prepares to sweep her off to dinner and bed. In that hubristic moment, he makes the wrong turn – one that takes this Master of the Universe not to Manhattan but to the Bronx, a road accident, a death and a terrible fall to earth. Mitchell was riding a bike, not driving a car, when he entered Downing Street on that fatal evening. But the world must have seemed to be at his feet none the less. One flash of exasperation and a few testy words are all it took to shatter the illusion. It is the old, old story of the vanity of human wishes.