21 Sep 2012

Mitchell outburst damaging, but could be check he needs

The more I think about it, the worse the implications are – with one small possible exception.

Andrew Mitchell’s outburst to the Downing Street policeman is damaging to his government, his party and to him in so many different ways.

First, it was an appalling story to emerge in this of all weeks, when the police have huge public sympathy after the deaths of two police officers in Hyde.

Second, it is bound to reinforce the public perception (or prejudice) about this government – that it is run by a bunch of out-of-touch, wealthy, upper middle class, Oxbridge public schoolboys who have no care for those doing difficult, lowly, badly-paid jobs.

Third, it will further alienate the many backbenchers who share that public perception and despise and denounce the Cameron-Osborne regime as arrogant toffs – many of whom were rebels on the EU referendum vote last year, and Lords reform this summer.  It might now be even harder for Mitchell, as chief whip, to keep such people in line in Commons votes.

Fourth, he will find it harder, too, to discipline MPs over personal transgressions and misbehaviour, which is another of the chief whip’s duties.

Fifth, the word “pleb” will go down in the political lexicon, representing – unfairly or not – the perceived arrogance of a certain class of Conservatives.

Sixth, and sadly for Andrew Mitchell, it may well become the one big memorable moment of his political career, overshadowing all the good work he did in two and half years as international development secretary.

Seventh, the incident is bound to reverberate round the coming conference season.  Goodness knows how many Labour and Lib Dem politicians will make jokes about Andrew Mitchell and “plebs”, while the Tories will now desperately have to do all they can to show they don’t share such attitudes.

Eighth, it will further alienate the police from this government.  Last’s years huge Police Federation march showed how angry rank-and-file officers are with ministers over their plans to change working practices, hold down pay and outsource (or privatise) their work.  Andrew Mitchell has just made Theresa May’s relationship with the police even more difficult.

Personally, however, I’ve never found Andrew Mitchell to be aloof and arrogant.  He’s always very polite with me, in fact.  He’s one of the few politicians, for example, who, after you’ve taken them out to lunch, will invariably send you a handwritten thank-you note.  But I accept that others in politics have different experiences. 

One former Conservative MP once told me Andrew Mitchell was the most arrogant colleague he knew on the Tory benches in the Commons, comparing unfavourably with his father, the former Transport Minister Sir David Mitchell, who was always rather quiet and courteous.  Quite a few people have predicted Mitchell’s tenure as chief whip will be a disaster.  He will inevitably rub backbenchers up the wrong way, they say.

Andrew Mitchell will feel absolutely dreadful about this episode, asking himself how he can possibly have behaved in such a heavy-handed, thoughtless manner.  But he must also be highly relieved that it hasn’t wrecked his career and lost him the job he always wanted. 

He must have been on a high after becoming chief whip.  Two weeks ago he was suddenly thrust into the centre of power, at the centre of all the intrigue, gossip and power-play, helping the PM reshuffle his government, advising who should be promoted and who deserved the sack, and running his own hand-picked team from his own offices in Downing Street.  An excellent example of hubris, or the pride before a fall.

Perhaps what happened will bring Andrew Mitchell down to earth.  At a party at the weekend I spotted Mitchell deep in conversation with Peter Mandelson, one practitioner of the black arts of power, I thought, happily comparing notes another.  Now Andrew Mitchell should learn from this in the way Mandelson successfully did from his various mishaps, and curbed the more abrasive aspects of his personality.  Perhaps Mitchell should even give Mandy a ring today.

It could prove to be the tap on the shoulder just at the right moment.  If Mitchell reflects on what happened, learns from it, shows genuine remorse and greater humility in future, it might – might – actually strengthen him, and make him a more effective chief whip, mellowed, wise, and more understanding of others.  It could even be the making of a great chief whip.

You can follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelLCrick