By Paul Goodman
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The essence of the case against Andrew Mitchell is that he called police officers "plebs", and told them to "know your place" – and, furthermore, swore at them rather than in passing. They say he did. He says he didn't. Voters showed more of an inclination to believe the police, whose account was recorded in a logbook, and Mr Mitchell thus eventually resigned. Until or unless his name is cleared, therefore, he is in no position to make a Cabinet comeback – assuming that David Cameron would want this to happen – let alone resume his former post as Chief Whip under this Government. Mr Mitchell, of course, will want his name to be cleared anyway. He will also presumably want to return to office. And he will rightly grasp that the cloud that hangs over his name makes it near-impossible for him to be appointed by Downing Street to almost any post at all.
The case against the former Chief Whip apparently relies on two witnesses. The first is a policeman who walked with Mr Mitchell from Downing Street's car gate, which he and others had refused to open for the Cabinet Minister to cycle through, to its pedestrian gate, which he opened for Mr Mitchell and his bicycle. It was at this point that the disputed words were spoken by Mr Mitchell. The second witness is a passer-by whose account of what happened corroborated closely with that which the policeman entered in his log book and which later appeared in the Daily Telegraph. Earlier this evening, Michael Crick suggested on Channel 4 News that this person, whose account of the incident helped to persuade David Cameron that Mr Mitchell was indeed at fault, was…not an ordinary member of the public at all, but a policeman. And apparently, like those policemen on the gate, a member of the Diplomatic Protection Group.
Mr Crick also broadcast footage of the incident, which showed Mr Mitchell first walking down Downing Street, then being turned away at the car gate, and finally exiting through the pedestrian gate – where the conversation happened. The film was inconclusive. Mr Mitchell seems to me to have "proceeded briskly", as a police log might say. And to my eye there is nothing unusual about the body language of either Mr Mitchell nor the policeman. But while it seems unlikely that strong words are being spoken by the former, it is impossible to be sure this didn't happen. However, there is no sign of the "several members of the public" opposite the gate that the police log suggests. And the tale of the passer-by turns out to be curiouser and curiouser. Mr Crick says that he denied, when questioned, being the author of an e-mail which essentially backed up the log book account; indeed, he apparently denies witnessing the incident at all.
Furthermore, he seems to deny sending the e-mail to John Randall, Mr Mitchell's deputy, which Mr Randall duly passed on to the Prime Minister. The Times (£) noted earlier today that "a member of the Diplomatic Protection Group, the unit which guards Downing Street, had been
arrested on suspicion of gross misconduct". It added that "Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Met Commissioner, said today that there was 'more to
this than meets the eye' ". Four points stand out from all this. First, the Sun stands by its original "Plebgate" story, which was given further legs by the logbook details later published in the Telegraph. Second, the only separate account backing up the police logbook one is clearly untrue. Third, the CCTV film arguably calls the logbook version into dispute, but there is room for doubt either way. And finally, the Prime Minister seems to have relied on that separate account when taking a view of Mr Mitchell's offence.
I end where I began. Until or unless Mr Mitchell's name is cleared, he is in no position to make a comeback. Mr Crick's film did not clear his name. But it cast enough doubt on the police version of events to make such an outcome possible – even, arguably, likely, as the tweets published above show. I don't believe some of the nudges and winks being directed at John Randall, which infer that the Deputy Chief Whip wanted his prickly superior out of the way. Indeed, Mr Randall, having received such an e-mail, was only doing his job by drawing to the attention of Downing Street. But there is plainly more to the whole affair than we've learned to date, and we will clearly learn more. Number 10 is saying that the allegations of doctored evidence are "exceptionally serious". If Mr Mitchell lost his career over fabrications and bullying (and some of us drew attention to the latter at the time), Mr Cameron must make a point of giving it back.