4 Feb 2013

Plebs, lies and videotape: the full ‘plebgate’ affair

Our new Dispatches programme on “plebgate”, broadcast at 8pm on Channel 4 tonight, reveals severe tensions at the highest levels of government over the whole affair. In particular, the programme uncovers the extraordinary struggle Andrew Mitchell had with Downing Street and the Cabinet Office to try to obtain the evidence which might clear his name.

Originally, while still chief whip, Mitchell made enquiries as to what the CCTV cameras in and around Downing Street had recorded of the now infamous incident involving him, his bike, and the Downing Street police officers. The CCTV was inconclusive and proved nothing, he was told. In any case there was no audio recording on it so it wasn’t worth bothering with. So he let the matter drop.

Once Mitchell resigned as chief whip on 19 October, however, he resolved to take things further. The next day he formally requested to see the CCTV material. Yet he wasn’t allowed even to view the pictures for more than a fortnight, and then not allowed to have a copy of the material to take away, until 10 December, more than seven weeks after his initial request.

Mitchell paid three visits to the Cabinet Office and Downing Street to view the CCTV output under the watchful eyes of three civil servants. Initially when Mitchell asked to take away a copy of the video, he was told no. Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood refused his request on the grounds of “national security”.

It seems odd that a man who, until mid-September, was operating at the heart of government, and privy to all sorts of sensitive secrets, had suddenly become a security risk. The footage only showed an area which is visible to any member of the public. Mitchell tells Dispatches Heywood was wrong to insist there was a “national security” problem.

Mitchell even had to assert his rights to the material under the Data Protection Act, only for officials to remind him, in true bureaucratic style, that they were allowed 40 days to answer his request. He was being treated like any other member of the public, rather than a former high-ranking minister who felt he’d lost his job in a stitch-up.

It was only when Mitchell and his wife Sharon had a meeting with David Cameron around the start of December and personally requested a copy of the CCTV, that the prime minister agreed that Mitchell should have the material.

Earlier, while both Mitchell and Dispatches pressed to see the CCTV footage, we were assured it wouldn’t show anything interesting or helpful to the former chief whip anyway. A senior Downing Street official even telephoned to say it was pointless for us to pursue the affair. It was a non-story, we were assured.

Mitchell’s ally? The prime minister

What’s fascinating is that Mitchell’s main, and perhaps only, ally in Downing Street was David Cameron himself. It was Cameron who, on 25 September, was sufficiently moved by Mitchell’s protestations of innocence, to change his mind about sacking him. And it was after Cameron’s personal intervention in December that the CCTV was released.

Indeed, Cameron was showing some integrity in doing so, for he knew perfectly well that in releasing the CCTV it was likely to end up on television, and cause the government considerable embarrassment. Cameron perhaps felt uncomfortable at the way Mitchell had been treated, and forced out of his job.

Some of those advising Cameron, in contrast, showed less concern. They felt the “plebs” episode had turned Mitchell into an embarrassing nuisance, as it fuelled the “Tory toff” argument. It was better to have Mitchell out of the way, seemed to be their approach, whatever the rights and wrongs of his case.

Now, since our first Dispatches broadcast last December, things have swung back in Mitchell’s favour. Unless the current police investigation comes up with a big surprise, then his path should in theory be clear to return to government in the next big reshuffle. It’s most unlikely though that he’d come back as chief whip, a job he had doubts about anyway.

But another question is whether Andrew Mitchell really wants to return to ministerial office. The whole episode has taken a big toll on him and his family, and taught him a lesson as to who his real friends are.

Mitchell tells me he has yet to make any decisions about his future. That rather suggests he’s in two minds about coming back into government.

Follow@MichaellCrick on Twitter.