Imagine that Andrew Mitchell hadn’t sued the Sun – and, furthermore, had not exposed himself to the counter-lawsuit brought by PC Toby Rowlands. The sum of “Plebgate”, as it is known, would be as follows. Five police officers have been sacked for gross misconduct. One of them, PC Wallis, has admitted misconduct in a public office and been sentenced to a year in prison. The judge in the case said that he was guilty of “sustained, and in significant measure, devious misconduct which fell far below the standards expected of a police officer”. The Independent Police Complaints Commission declared earlier this month that it intends to investigate three West Midlands Police Federation representatives over their conduct in the wake of a meeting held with Mitchell to discuss the affair.
David said during Prime Minister’s Questions that Mitchell was owed an apology by the policemen over this incident. Theresa May said that the Chief Constable of the force should say that he was sorry. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, met Mitchell in person to apologise for PC Wallis’s conduct. That Wallis had lied about witnessing the fateful encounter between Mitchell and Rowlands, taken together with evidence from CCTV footage of the incident, helped the former in his fight to rejoin the Cabinet. Mitchell came close to being recalled to it, perhaps as Defence Secretary, during last summer’s reshuffle.
Very simply, the balance of opinion about whether Mitchell had or not called PC Rowlands a “pleb” had moved in his favour, giving Cameron the political cover to recall him. The case had joined the sorry story of police misconduct in the public imagination – so much so that the Home Secretary mentioned Wallis’s misconduct alongside Hillsborough, the death of Ian Tomlinson and the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation in her scarifying speech to the Police Federation.
But there was a fly in Mitchell’s ointment. He had decided to sue the Sun for its reporting of the original incident – and PC Rowlands was suing him in return. It was rightly decided that he could not be recalled to government while he was suing a national newspaper.
And so to court. As I have pointed out before, no judge is empowered to tell people what to think – for example, over whether Mitchell did or didn’t utter the fateful P-word. I believe he didn’t say it; others will believe that he did; the row will go on. But judges do have the authority to rule on libel, and the verdict of Mr Justice Mitting in this case is that the Sun did not libel Mitchell. In his view, Mitchell probably “did speak the words alleged or something so close to them as to amount to the same including the politically toxic word pleb” – and, in libel cases, balance of probability is all.
In short, Mitting effectively dismissed the notion of a conspiracy to frame Mitchell – or at least one of which Rowlands was a part. The PC, he said, is “not the sort of man who would have had the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment an account of what a senior politician had said to him in temper”. Rowlands would be entitled to feel that this is a compliment to his character if not necessarily to his brainpower. And that, more or less, is that. Unless Mitchell appeals successfully, he faces legal bills of £3 million (and appeals would cost more money). The consensus view this afternoon is that his political career is over.
One doesn’t have to be a friend of Mitchell, which I am, to find the judge’s decision surprising. But whatever one’s take, the old maxim holds good – “never go to law”. Had Mitchell not done so, he would almost certainly be back in government today. Instead, he faces financial damage and political ruin. He would be a loss to politics; beneath his abrasive manner is a fine mind, and a warmer side that is too often concealed. His enemies, who are by no means confined to the Left of politics, will rejoice. Some of his friends have seen his decision to sue as a mistake from the start. They are far from alone in believing that had he not done so he should have been restored to Cabinet. After all, they were joined in that view, not all that long ago, by four out of five ConservativeHome readers.