Whom do you believe? A YouGov poll has found that 69 per cent of voters believe that Andrew Mitchell, the Government Chief whip, called police officers “plebs” after they refused (why?) to let him cycle through the main gates of Downing Street.
After all, the official log of the incident, somehow leaked (how exactly, I should like to know) to the Sun newspaper, proves it, doesn’t it? The report describes Mr Mitchell speaking to a female officer and “demanding exit through the main vehicle gate into Whitehall”. He was told that it was “policy” for cyclists to use the pedestrian gate.
“Mr Mitchell refused,” continues the log, “stating he was the chief whip and he always used the main gates,” the report goes on.
“I explained to Mr Mitchell that the policy was to use the side pedestrian gates and that I was happy to open those for him… After several refusals Mr Mitchell got off his bike and walked to the pedestrian gate with me after I again offered to open that for him.
“There were several members of public present as is the norm opposite the pedestrian gate and as we neared it, Mr Mitchell said: ‘Best you learn your ——- place… you don’t run this ——- Government… You’re ——- plebs.’
“The members of public looked visibly shocked and I was somewhat taken aback by the language used and the view expressed by a senior Government official.”
Well, surely, that proves it doesn’t it? The official police log? Interestingly, it’s quite clear that the Prime Minister, who knows Andrew Mitchell well, doesn’t believe this account. The minister, we are told, “looked him in the eye” and assured him that he had not used the words reported in the log. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe and the Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood also appear to be sceptical: they have confirmed in a joint letter that there will not be an investigation into the conduct of the chief whip.
The fact is that there have been over recent weeks mixed signals about the basic credibility, even the decency, not only of Andrew Mitchell but also of the police. Take Andrew Mitchell first: before he was appointed chief whip because of his scary toughness, he had been by common consent one of the most dedicated holders of the office of Secretary of State for International Development, one of those Tories, like Ken Clarke, who even convinced anti-Tories allowed themselves to admire. Even the very Left-wing Jon Snow of Channel 4 News said that Mitchell was “unquestionably the best-prepared secretary of state… and that everyone in the sector knew of his commitment”. So which is he: a bad-tempered and arrogant Tory? Or a dedicated softy, determined to drive up the amount of Government aid to the poor, even during a time of economic recession? The fact is, he’s probably both: and those who know him don’t believe he would ever use the word “Pleb”
So what about that police log? The trouble is that there have been over recent weeks distinctly, even dramatically, mixed signals about the credibility and the decency of the police, too. We all believe, certainly I do, that we have good reason to be grateful for their courage and dedication. The Mitchell incident came only a week after the murder in Greater Manchester of police officers Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes: the Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper conveyed the feelings of most people when she said that “this is a painful demonstration of how police officers put themselves in harm’s way every day to protect the public” and when she went on to pay tribute “to the bravery of the two officers today who have given so much in their work to keep us safe”. Like the vast majority of her colleagues, she might have gone on to say.
But the Mitchell incident happened, too, only two weeks after the publication of the Bishop of Liverpool’s Hillsborough report, which found that South Yorkshire Police had changed some of the 164 statements made in the wake of the tragedy. No fewer than 116 of the police statements had been subjected to “substantive amendment”, had been “amended to remove or alter comments unfavourable to South Yorkshire Police”. There was, quite simply, a deliberate police conspiracy to hide their own culpability and to divert the blame on to the fans.
Hillsborough is not an isolated example of police mendacity, though it is certainly the most serious. There have been just too many examples, some quite recent, of — how shall I put this — the unreliability of official police statements, for that Downing Street police log to convince me that Andrew Mitchell used the word “pleb”. Apart from anything else, it’s just too much like what someone unacquainted with his social milieu might imagine him saying, if he were making up a statement meant to sound like an arrogant public schoolboy. The fact is that nobody has used the word “pleb” for years, if ever they did: so on balance (not that my opinion matters) I believe Mitchell rather than the police log. (Incidentally, as my readers will know, I am hardly a fervent admirer of this government, and Andrew Mitchell will undoubtedly over the next year or two all too effectively be bullying Tory members through the division lobbies against their convictions, in support of policies which I have more than once assailed in this column.).
The lesson of all this, surely, is that this kind of human mess isn’t even vaguely comprehensible without the doctrine of original sin. Mitchell is an unusual mixture of high-minded idealist and, occasionally, foul-mouthed bully (in fact, the perfect chief whip). The police (and here, without any knowledge of the police officers involved in the Mitchell incident, we have to generalise) are collectively dedicated, courageous, even heroic, and occasionally (I fear endemically) mendacious. In a fallen world, we get the politicians, and the police, we deserve, actually perhaps rather better than we deserve; and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be too self-righteous about any of them. Let us be grateful for their virtues; and as uncensorious as we can be of their sins.