Andrew Mitchell spent two years detoxifying his image at the International Development department, wearing charity wristbands and talking about polio vaccines. But however much success he enjoyed in creating a persona of a reasonable, mild-mannered man concerned with poverty (and our leading article this week disputes whether the programmes he led were anywhere near as successful as that), the man known as ‘Thrasher’ trashed that reputation this week. The Sun reports that he raged ‘You’re f***ing plebs’ at policemen who had the temerity to stop him from cycling out of the Downing Street gates. His tirade allegedly included him repeatedly telling the police officers that he was the chief whip, as though he were twisting the arm of a cocky young MP threatening to rebel against the government. The paper says:
A source reported Mr Mitchell as saying: ‘Open this gate, I’m the Chief Whip. I’m telling you – I’m the chief whip and I’m coming through these gates.’
The account of events – which Mitchell disputes, while apologising for behaviour he realises was unacceptable – also says this:
The PC targeted by the tirade reported to his superiors that Mitchell told him: ‘Best you learn your f***ing place. You don’t run this f***ing government. You’re f***ing plebs.’
Actually, Andrew Mitchell doesn’t run this f***ing government, either: he ensures that MPs in the Conservative party support the policies of the f***ing government, which is led by the Prime Minister.
It’s not impossible to imagine a chief whip of any party, giddy with the rush that comes from reaching the dizzy heights of a position that most of the public have never heard of, but which inspires fear into the hearts of MPs, launching a ‘don’t-you-know-who-I-am’ tirade at a policeman. But there are two things that make this tirade particularly toxic for Thrasher.
The first is the appalling timing: Mitchell’s rant took place on Wednesday, which the Sun points out was just 33 hours after two policewomen were shot dead in Manchester. While his colleagues in the government were releasing statements praising the bravery and dignity of the police force, Mitchell was apparently calling another one of its members a ‘pleb’ because he wasn’t allowed to ride his bike through a gate.
The second is that word ‘pleb’. Mitchell claims these were not the words he used, but ‘pleb’ is the sort of word that people who still see the Conservative as the Nasty Party imagine Tories use the whole time. A much smaller problem than the party’s image is Mitchell’s own standing among MPs. This is the man who is supposed to make the rowdy Conservative party behave, yet here he is, a week into the job, losing control over something totally insignificant.