Andrew Mitchell has launched a carefully planned fightback against claims that led to his resignation
On a balmy September evening, Andrew Mitchell jumped on his bike outside his office in Downing Street and cycled the short distance to the security gates on his way to dinner at the Carlton Club.
As a confident fellow, with a background in the Royal Tank Regiment, the then chief whip expected to be waved through the gates on his way to the club where Tory MPs have plotted over the decades.
But Mitchell became involved in angry exchanges with the armed police officers on duty shortly after 7.30pm on 19 September after they blocked his passage and insisted that he wheel his bike through the pedestrian side exit.
Their exchanges, which barely lasted a minute, ended Mitchell’s cabinet career and appeared to lay the ground for the former chief whip to be remembered as the Tory who accused police officers of acting as “fucking plebs”. But a carefully planned fightback, plotted in the days after his resignation last October, has now raised the prospect that Mitchell may have fallen victim to what his ally David Davis has described as a “gross injustice”.
The former shadow home secretary spoke out after Downing Street called on the Metropolitan police to investigate the “exceptionally serious” allegation that a serving police officer had fabricated evidence against Mitchell. The No 10 statement was released after Channel 4 News reported on Tuesday night that a police officer, who wrote an account of the incident after supposedly witnessing the confrontation while off duty, admitted that he had not been present on the evening of 19 September.
Had the officer been present he would have seen that Mitchell tried to cycle through the security gates of Downing Street at 9.36pm on 19 September. The grainy CCTV footage of the incident, released to Mitchell as he tried to clear his name, showed that he was stopped at the gate. It then shows that seconds later he wheeled his bike through the side gate.
The official police log, published by the Daily Telegraph on 24 September, reports that Mitchell raged at the officers when they blocked him. The log said: “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 fucking place … you don’t run this fucking government … You’re fucking 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. I can not say if this statement was aimed at me individually, or the officers present or the police service as a whole.”
Amid the battle between Mitchell and the police it is easy to forget that in some areas they are in agreement. Mitchell has admitted that he swore at the police, saying: “I thought you guys were fucking meant to help us.”
But then their accounts differ. Mitchell says the CCTV footage shows the log is wrong to claim that members of the public were present on the other side of the gates. This is seen as crucial because the account written by the off-duty police officer, which repeated details about Mitchell calling the police “fucking plebs”, also claimed that there were witnesses.
Mitchell also says the CCTV footage shows he could not have uttered the toxic word “pleb”. This is because the police log says that he uttered these words “as we neared” the pedestrian gate. The CCTV is inconclusive: there are no physical signs that he is speaking or angry, but his face cannot be seen.
As Mitchell wheeled his bike through the pedestrian gate the two accounts find common ground again. The police claimed in their log that he said “you haven’t heard the last of this” as he cycled away.
Mitchell admits that he uttered words to this effect. His friends believe this is the most likely explanation for the decision of the police officers to write up an account of the incident.
The two police officers who made the original report have remained silent – as they have to – as a whirlwind of allegations about conspiracies, fabrication of evidence and fit-ups swirls around them. The constables, one female, one male, remain in their positions in the diplomatic protection unit, SO6, and are determined, it is said, to get on with their jobs. Those who have had contact with the officers say that, in the immediate aftermath of the altercation at the gates of Downing Street, both officers made notes of what they say happened in their pocketbooks.
Putting it colloquially, sources who spoke to the officers afterwards said they were “bricking it” and were concerned that they needed to make as clear a note as possible of what happened and make sure that it was seen by those above them.
To cover themselves, they wrote a log of the incident from their pocketbook notes, and very soon afterwards emailed it up through the chain of command at the Metropolitan police to a sergeant, an inspector and – it is understood – even higher up the ranks. The Guardian understands a number of officers would have had sight of this emailed log – a tactic adopted by the officers for their own protection.
Mitchell’s friends believe that his warning of repercussions explains why the police – though not necessarily the officers on duty – felt the need for corroboratory evidence in the form of an eyewitness account. “They needed an extra voice,” one friend suggested.
At 9.52pm on 20 September, just over 24 hours after the incident, an off-duty member of the diplomatic protection unit sent an email to his local MP, John Randall, with an account that is almost identical to the police log. Randall was the deputy chief whip, who had strained relations with Mitchell. There were reports in the days leading up to Mitchell’s resignation that Randall had threatened to resign unless Mitchell went. No 10 sources have stressed that Randall acted entirely properly as an MP in forwarding the email from a constituent to No 10.
Friends of the chief whip say the email from the officer to Randall proves that there was collusion within the Met – though this did not necessarily involve the officers who wrote the police log. This is because the email was virtually identical to the police log, which did not appear in the public domain until four days later when the Daily Telegraph published it on 24 September.
The Metropolitan police are now investigating whether that officer fabricated evidence. It has made clear that the officer was not present at the time, as he claimed. Their investigation is also examining whether any third party leaked the information about the incident to the Sun. Scotland Yard would not comment on whether it would be interviewing Randall as part of this tranche of the investigation. Three days after the Sun article, what purported to be the full officers’ log appeared in the Daily Telegraph corroborating the Sun’s version of what had been said.
Scotland Yard has never challenged the accuracy of the officers’ log published in the Telegraph. On Tuesday the Metropolitan police commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, publicly stated that nothing he had seen in the past few days had affected the original report of the episode by the officers in Downing Street at the time. He said: “There’s nothing I’ve seen in this fresh information that causes me to doubt that original account.” Sources said on Wednesday – after Channel 4 broadcast the CCTV, which Mitchell says casts doubt on the police officers accounts in their log of the altercation – that the commissioner’s comments still stood.
Inside Scotland Yard, 30 officers are now running a major inquiry into who leaked the information to the Sun and the Telegraph, and into the alleged fabrication of evidence by the third officer who posed as a member of the public in his correspondence.
He was arrested last Saturday night on suspicion of misconduct in public office and the unauthorised release of information. Scotland Yard said its inquiry would examine whether there was any evidence of a conspiracy between this officer and any other person.
The atmosphere inside Scotland Yard is said to be extremely tense as Hogan-Howe, an authoritarian commissioner at the best of times, demands answers in the face of a broadside by his political masters in Downing Street to “get to the bottom of the matter”.
A number of officers are being interviewed as part of the inquiry, including the two diplomatic protection officers who were involved in the original incident. It has emerged that the Met did not launch an inquiry into the Mitchell incident at the time – preferring instead to leave that to the Cabinet Office. It is not known, therefore, whether these officers have ever been interviewed at length about what happened, or whether the CCTV footage of the incident was viewed at the time.
Scotland Yard has refused requests to publish the officers’ original log, a decision the commissioner appears to be standing by. Instead, the Met’s directorate of professional standards has embarked on a “large-scale and complex investigation that has grown to incorporate numerous lines of inquiry” which, they say, “will not be short”.
It took another month before Mitchell finally resigned as chief whip on 19 October. His friends believe the email, which appeared to have been sent by a member of the public, led to a major loss of confidence in Mitchell in No 10 and in the whips’ office. One No 10 figure said to him: “They have got you bang to rights.”
The friends believe this even though Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, discounted the email on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the CCTV footage. Others say that a simple calculation prompted Mitchell to decide finally to throw in the towel. He was keen to fight on but acknowledged that this could only be done in one way: by accusing the police of having lied. “Downing Street was not prepared to do that and you can understand,” one friend said. The incident happened in the days after two police officers were murdered in Manchester, adding to the sensitivity of the situation. The end for Mitchell came when it became clear at a meeting of the 1922 committee that at least one third of the parliamentary party – and a sizeable proportion of the 2010 intake of MPs – had lost confidence in him. “A chief whip needs the complete confidence of the 1922 committee to survive,” one MP said.
Mitchell was flanked by Davis and Greg Knight, another veteran of the whips’ office during the years of the Maastricht rebellion, when he appeared in the chamber for prime minister’s questions on Wednesday. Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, could be seen having a friendly word with him.
Most Tory MPs sympathised with Mitchell’s treatment, though some suggested that he may have enjoyed a different fate if he had not been such an abrasive figure over the years. One senior figure said: “We all need credit in the bank when the going gets rough. Poor old Andrew found he had barely any.”
The incident will have poisoned even further the dire relations between the Tories and the police. One senior MP said: “It is only the chippy reverse snobs in the police who could imagine that Andrew would describe them as plebs. We don’t use language like that.”