David Cameron attempts to end the row over Andrew Mitchell’s altercation with Downing Street police officers as Ed Miliband accuses him of “total double standards”.
The Labour leader claimed David Cameron would support police who locked up a “yob” who swore at officers but refused to sack his chief whip for the same offence.
The clash between the two leaders was at the first Prime Minister’s Questions since Mr Mitchell was accused of using abusive language at police officers at the gates of Downing Street in September.
The Labour leader said the official police log showed “a man claiming to be the chief whip called the police plebs, told them they should know their place and used other abusive language”.
Mr Mitchell was on the Commons front bench as Mr Miliband said: “While it’s a night in the cell for the yob, it’s a night at the Carlton Club for the chief whip.
“Isn’t that the clearest case there could be of total double standards?”
He directly asked Mr Cameron: “Did the chief whip use those words?”
But Mr Cameron insisted the chief whip’s apology had been accepted and accused Mr Miliband of having “nothing serious to say about the country”.
Mr Cameron said he was “absolutely clear” that the chief whip’s conduct was “wrong” but insisted that the apology marked an end to the row.
“That apology has been accepted by the officer concerned, it’s been accepted by the head of the Metropolitan Police.
“That is why this government will get on with the big issues of helping Britain compete and succeed in the world.”
Mr Miliband insisted: “I think it’s a real issue, abusing police officers.
“Just because a police officer has better manners than the chief whip, it doesn’t mean he should keep his job.
“If a yob in a city centre on a Saturday night abused a police officer, ranting and raving, the chances are they would be arrested and placed in the back of a police van and rightly so, and the prime minister would be the first in the queue to say it was right.”
Mr Miliband followed up with his claim of “double standards” but Mr Cameron again attempted to focus on the economy.
He said the Labour leader “doesn’t want to talk about what we need to do in this country go get our deficit down because he’s got no plans”.
Mr Miliband “wants to discuss these issues because he has got nothing serious to say about the country”, the prime minister said.
At one point Mr Mitchell appeared to deny having sworn at police, shaking his head and apparently mouthing “I didn’t, I didn’t” as Mr Miliband said that people who swear at police should expect to be arrested.
In response, the Labour leader said: “He says from a sedentary position he didn’t. Maybe he will tell us what he actually did say.”
A senior Labour source later said that Mr Mitchell’s apparent denial made it all the more essential for it to be made clear exactly what the chief whip said.
“This could be very easily cleared up by Number 10 saying exactly what was said,” the source said.
“If anything, this reinforces the need for them to be completely clear about what Mr Mitchell did say when he insulted the police.”
Mr Mitchell arrived about 20 minutes early for Prime Minister’s Questions and took his position at the end of the government front bench, three spaces down from Mr Cameron and seated alongside Leader of the House Andrew Lansley.
He looked tight-lipped and tense throughout the exchanges, shaking his head and mouthing “no” as Mr Miliband accused him of calling the police “plebs” and “ranting and raving”, then nodding as Mr Cameron defended him.
Mr Mitchell roused himself to join in Tory cheering as Mr Cameron accused the Labour leader of focusing on the chief whip because he had nothing to say about more serious issues..
He received a supportive slap on the arm from Tory minister Matthew Hancock as his 30-minute ordeal ended.
But the chief whip faces another stern test on Wednesday evening when the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers gathers.
Some MPs question his ability to enforce discipline in the wake of the controversy.
But others have leapt to his defence including cabinet minister Ken Clarke, who told BBC Radio 4’s World at One the issue was being “taken out of all proportion”, and blamed the Police Federation.
“The Police Federation are trying to remind us that they are a powerful trade union,” he said. “Most people listening to this programme have at some time lost their temper, said something they should not, and had to apologise fairly abjectly afterward when they felt ashamed of themselves.”
Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary Michael Moore also insisted that Mr Mitchell was staying in his post.
“I think we have seen an unfortunate series of events for which Andrew has apologised in the most profuse terms,” he said.