The key figures in the scandal which has grown from a confrontation at the Downing Street gates
The Police Federation and the government
There is no love lost between the Police Federation and the Conservatives as Whitehall presses on with cuts to officers’ pay and pensions and slashes the police budget by 20%, removing 16,000 officers from the streets. While the Police Federation of England and Wales is the umbrella body, it was the regional federations that were most vocal about Andrew Mitchell in the aftermath of his comments to police officers in Downing Street.
The altercation with Mitchell came a day after the murder of two police officers in the Greater Manchester force, and emotions amongst police officers on the ground, and within the federation were raw.
Since Theresa May has become home secretary, the campaign by the federation against government reforms to the police service has gathered pace and been fuelled by the use of social media to spread their anti-cuts anti-government message.
More than 35,000 officers marched in London against the cuts – a record turnout for such a march – and a display of the how poor the relations between rank and file officers and the Tories have become.
It was a Tory government which exploited the unquestioning loyalty of officers during the miners’ strike in 1984, a loyalty which earned the police the soubriquet “Thatcher’s boot boys”. Today, the situation could not be more different, the rank and file are distant, hostile and deeply distrust their Tory masters.
The incident – and the elitism they saw Mitchell as representing – was a spark that lit a tinderbox of fury against the Conservatives who are determined to reform what they believe is the last unreformed public service. The Met federation chairman, John Tully, was outspoken, saying Mitchell’s outburst reflected a wider problem with the government’s attitude to the police. “I think the wider policing community is concerned that over time, the government has sustained quite a vitriolic attack on police pay and conditions and pensions for instance…
“It just emphasises what we have felt for some time, that there is an inbuilt dislike of the police service in general from government,” he said.
The depth of the hostility to government was further displayed when he rejected the prime minister’s words of sympathy in the aftermath of the murders of PCs Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone, just days before the Plebgate scandal erupted, accusing David Cameron of “hollow words”.
“We’ve had this tragic event in Manchester, with the prime minister being there today and making some comments which, I have to be honest, many of my colleagues feel are hollow words.”
Asked to explain, Tully replied: “I think it’s expected that he would say that. Unfortunately my members aren’t convinced by that.”
Federation chiefs in the West Midlands and West Mercia went further, saying Mitchell had to go. They demanded and were given a meeting with Mitchell at the Tory party conference in Birmingham in October – a meeting that Mitchell taped. When they emerged, the federation representatives said Mitchell had refused to reveal what he actually said to the officers in Downing Street. Ken Mackaill, chair of the West Mercia federation, again described the then chief whip’s position as untenable.
Behind that meeting was the hand of Jon Gaunt, the shock jock and former Sun columnist, who now works for several federations – including the West Midlands and West Mercia – as a PR consultant. Gaunt is seen by some among the rank and file as their hero and an outspoken defender of the police and their rights.
Andrew Mitchell and the Conservative party
Mitchell inspires deep loyalty among his friends but wins respect, rather than affection, from many other Tory MPs.
The former Conservative chief whip and international development secretary is highly regarded for the way he threw himself into the international development portfolio for five years in opposition and more than two years in government.
But he is also remembered as a somewhat abrasive campaign manager for David Davis during the 2005 Tory leadership campaign.
Most Tory MPs believe that new evidence about Mitchell’s encounter with police officers in Downing Street shows he may have been subject to an injustice, despite his admission that he had indeed sworn at officers.
But there are mixed feelings about a return to government. One friend said he hoped Mitchell would return to ministerial office, though possibly not the cabinet, at the next reshuffle.
Another MP said he looked forward to seeing Mitchell back in the frontline, though also speculating that it would not be as a minister.
“I do hope we will see Andrew taking up an international post – away from us,” the MP said.
A key figure in deciding Mitchell’s future is likely to be George Osborne, the chancellor. They formed a strangely warm bond as rival campaign managers in the 2005 leadership contest, during which Mitchell invited the future chancellor to dinner at his Nottinghamshire home.
One MP said: “George will note that Andrew lost his temper. Remember, George is super-cool.”
Met police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe and the government
The Plebgate row has turned into the biggest challenge that Bernard Hogan-Howe has faced as commissioner of the Metropolitan police. At issue is the integrity of some officers, threatening the reputation of the force, and his judgment in originally deciding not to investigate the incident in September.
One source said that the commissioner should have had the CCTV checked months ago in case it contradicted the account from officers about the row with Mitchell.
The commissioner is sticking by his backing for the officers involved and their account revealed in a police log that appears to have been leaked to the media. Hogan-Howe is seen as being close to the Conservatives, and was chosen last year as Britain’s top police officer despite two selection panels saying another candidate, Sir Hugh Orde, was a better choice.
Hogan-Howe’s style is to have a grip on issues, and the jury is out on whether he has had sufficient grip on the unfolding Plebgate saga. The terms of the Met’s investigation were expanded on Wednesday after criticism and concern from Westminster.
It should be the best of times for Hogan-Howe, with crime falling and the top officer, who grew up on a northern England council estate in a one-parent family, expected to receive a knighthood, which goes with being commissioner, in the New Year honours list. But as ever for Met commissioners, it is the unexpected that can pose the biggest danger.
However, his job is probably safe for now: in the past four years, since Boris Johnson became London mayor, Scotland Yard has seen two commissioners forced from office. A third would be embarrassing for the force and politicians alike.