By Paul Goodman
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"His views are less important than his disposition. He is one of those
men who imposes himself on his surroundings: his Commons Office, when he
shadowed the International Development brief, was piled high with
topical reading and decorated with family photos – and, indeed, the
occasional snap of himself. (His self-confidence shows in his elegant,
flowing handwriting.) And while he is a shrewd observer of other
people, he tends to impose himself on them, too. This has not won him universal popularity among lobby journalists."
So I wrote after Andrew Mitchell was appointed but before the "Gategate" drama, adding that "the view of some Conservative MPs yesterday evening was that the appointment is, frankly, a mistake". I concluded that David Cameron "will have made a catastrophic misjudgement – one which will blight his
government – if he has ordered Mr Mitchell not to deploy his charm but
to wield the cane". Within a month, the new Chief Whip had threatened a policeman with a thrashing – so to speak – at the very gates of Downing Street.
I hadn't expected my apprehensions to take flesh so quickly, and my first reaction to the incident was that Mr Mitchell should go. If there is one fact that today's MPs should grasp, it is that they acquire no status simply by being members of the Commons: status must be earned. If the Chief Whip was incapable of realising this, I thought, then the more fool him – and the more fool George Osborne, whose ally Mr Mitchell has become, for pushing his cause with David Cameron. There could be no more vivid demonstration of Number 10's lack of grip, nous and grasp.
The briefing against the new Chief Whip is coming from his colleagues as well as the media. This demonstrates that he's not very popular with them either, and that he therefore may not be able to do his job. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he were sacked next summer – the row is toxic enough to bar any further promotion – and he may have to go sooner: the Tory backbenches are already the most rebellious in modern times, and his position is extremely weak. For all this, though, the events of the last few days have made me question my original response.
Mr Mitchell met Police Federation members last Friday. But the clash with the police outside Downing Street happened the best part of a month ago: Danny Alexander was cracking jokes about it at the Liberal Democrat conference, which already seems an age away. And the fact is that we know no more about what really happened now than we did then. It may be that the Chief Whip is not be telling the truth. It may also be that the police aren't, either. (Remember Hillsborough, some have said; remember Jean Charles de Menezes.)
I'm surprised that a more likely explanation hasn't been widely aired. Very simply, memories of rows differ. (After exchanging strong words with someone, has your memory of what was said always been exactly the same as the other party's?) But whatever happened, Mr Mitchell has said he is sorry and the police officer concerned has accepted his apology. So why is the rumpus rumbling on almost four weeks later? Because the lobby doesn't like the Chief Whip, because some of his colleagues don't either…and because the Police Federation want a scalp.
I don't blame my fellow journalists for resenting Mr Mitchell throwing his weight around, and I can't fault my former Parliamentary colleagues for taking the same view. But I cannot for the life of me see why the Police Federation should dictate who serves in the Cabinet or not. It would be melodramatic to describe Mr Mitchell's meeting with members of its West Midlands branch as a show trial, but it had more than a smack of Lewis Carroll's Mouse's Tale: " 'I'll be judge, I'll be jury,' said Cunning Old Fury, 'I'll try
The Police Federation now says that the Metropolitan Police should waste its time and energies on investigating an incident which has been peacefully resolved. This helps to illustrate why the conventional wisdom should be turned on its head. It holds that politicians are the mighty of the land, using their power to crush the rest of us. But Mr Mitchell's power is vanishing. Exposed, briefed against and hunted, he cuts a puny, isolated figue against the mass ranks of the Police Federation. That may be his own fault. But it doesn't follow that they should decide his fate.