The Mitchell affair is a reminder that relations between this government and the force are as bad as any in living memory
Speaking about the police more than 30 years ago, Margaret Thatcher offered a characteristically black and white policy prescription. “What they need is support and not criticism,” she said. Judging by the powers, the money and the kit which she lavished on the force throughout the 1980s, Mrs T was as good as her word.
It is a mark of how much has changed in the Conservative party since Thatcher’s day that no serious Conservative politician would dream of using such sweepingly uncritical language about the police force today. Over pay, pensions, force numbers and, most recently, the system of local police accountability, the two are often on opposite sides of the argument. Indeed, after the dramatic twists in the Andrew Mitchell affair this week, it is perhaps not Thatcher but Alfred Hitchcock who best speaks for today’s Tory party mood. “I’m not against the police,” the great director once confided in an interview, “I’m just afraid of them.”
The full facts about the former chief whip’s confrontation with Downing Street protection officers three months ago have still not emerged. But this week’s Dispatches and Channel 4 News investigation by Michael Crick was a quantum leap towards a fuller picture, with its new CCTV evidence and incriminating interviews. Even as it stands, Crick’s report is likely to be a game changer – not just in Mitchell’s determined drive to be exonerated and get back on the ministerial ladder, but in the downward spiral of the Tory party’s worsening relations with the police.
Crick’s reporting implies – although it does not yet prove – that Mitchell was telling the truth when he denied making the infamous “plebs” remark last September. It also suggests that the police version of the incident may have been doctored, and that police could have been responsible for leaking a false account of events to the Sun and the Daily Telegraph. These stories then snowballed into the successful demands for Mitchell to quit in October.
Most seriously of all, Crick alleges that a Metropolitan police officer who was not at the scene gave a fictitious but damning eye-witness account of the incident to Downing Street while also concealing that he was himself a policeman. Finally, the Police Federation – the statutory representative body established after Britain’s first and last national police strike in 1919 – stands accused of accepting Mitchell’s version of events in private and then dismissing it in front of television cameras moments later.
Crick’s reporting leaves important questions unanswered – a few of them by Mitchell himself. Why, for example, did he not mount the defence in September that he has marshalled in December? Most of the remaining mysteries, though, are about the police’s conduct. Is there really, in this ultra-sensitive location at the heart of Whitehall, no audio record of the row? Is the police log, which records Mitchell’s “plebs” insult, still a reliable account? Who gave the story to the Sun, and the log to the Telegraph? What were their motives? And how did the allegedly false account from the pretend eye-witness come to be written?
Scotland Yard made clear yesterday that it is pulling out all the stops to answer some of these questions. Thirty officers are now on the case of what happened in Downing Street. But in whose interest? The rule of law or the interests of the police? Either way, in this day and age, and with so much at stake, it is surely wrong for the Metropolitan police to carry out such a sensitive investigation into some of their own.
The argument still comes down to whether you believe Mitchell or the police. That’s still in the realm of intelligent deduction. But they can’t both be telling the truth – and the odds have shifted in Mitchell’s favour this week. The former international development secretary won’t be getting a cabinet job back for Christmas, especially in the whips’ office. But in some Tory eyes he seems to be making a whirlwind transition from government embarrassment to ministerial martyr.
If it is true, as friends of the former chief whip were arguing today, that he is the victim of “an absolute police stitch-up”, then that is a very big deal, and it is not just Mitchell who is entitled to be angry. It is every democrat and every believer in the rule of law and the security of the state too. Mitchell’s vindication, were it to occur and be conclusive, would necessarily imply one of the most devastating police scandals of modern times – and there are already plenty of contenders for that accolade.
We should be clear what we may be getting into here. Several tabloids this week greeted the arrest of a suspect in the Mitchell affair as a chilling witch-hunt against a whistleblower. It was, they argued, proof of the dark shadow that a Lex Leveson might cast across the work of our glorious unshackled press.
But the truth could be almost exactly the reverse. If an armed police officer entrusted with one of the greatest responsibilities in the state – guarding the government – conspired to bring down an elected politician, that is something that cannot be treated lightly. If it is not an act of high treason then it seems to me that it’s not far off. And if Mitchell is telling the truth, then the whole episode shows not why Leveson is so dangerous but why Leveson was so needed and why the report should be supported. A lot at stake? I’ll say there would be.
In practice, however, the facts have not yet proved the case conclusively either way. But the Mitchell affair, and the role of the Police Federation in it, are a reminder that relations between this government and the police are already as bad as any in living memory.
This is to the coalition’s credit. The government has been more honest and more committed to overdue police reform – particularly on costs and numbers – than any recent predecessors. As the general election nears, David Cameron and Theresa May will come under great pressure from the police and press to abandon that brave course. The Mitchell case is a reminder of exactly why they should hold their nerve.