It’s hard to see how the Andrew Mitchell story could be much worse for the Tories. Being accused of calling police officer a “fucking pleb” and telling them to “learn your fucking place” seems like a message laser targetted to prove that some at the top of the Tory Party think they are born to rule, that they are better than others and that the “plebs” need to get out of their way and do what they’re told.
The imagery could barely have been worse if Mitchell had trampled over a nurse, on a horse, in full hunting regalia, screaming “Fuck off serf” through a bullhorn.
Similarly, it’s a further blow to already damaged police morale to hear a senior member of a government that is cutting their numbers tell them to learn their fucking place…
It all just serves to reinforce what much of the public already feel in their bones about the modern Tory Party – it’s run by “arrogant posh boys” who not only don’t understand the lives of most people, worse than that, actively look down on most people. It reinforces probably the strongest negative impression of the Tory Party that exists, and it exists because there is a more than sizeable grain of truth to it.
Back in the 1980s when the Tories actually won elections – no support from Lib Dems required – this would never have happened. Support for and from the police was a touchstone of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, as anyone who has spent any time in any mining village will tell you. Jack Straw noted undertones of this Thatcher/police relationship in the aftermath of recent Hillsborough revelations. Yet now it seems that some Tories regard even the police as just more “plebs”.
What a word that is. How evocative. It sticks in the nostrils like the smell of urinal cakes or a fart on a hot bus. It batters you to submission with how out of date the word is, nevermind the sentiment. But it also says something about how our political class is divorced from working class, and even middle class, aspirations.
The lack of people from working class backgrounds in politics is at epidemic proportions – and the Labour Party is certainly not immune from justifiable criticism on that score. But the Tory Party takes this to a completely different level. For a party that needs – and in some areas relies on – working class votes, the lack of identifiable senior figures from “ordinary backgrounds” in the Tory Party is stark. Eric Pickles is often cited as representative of working class Tories in the cabinet, but his cartoon-like behaviour makes it hard to see him as a representative of anything or anyone but Eric Pickles. Sometimes Phillip Hammond is cited as working class Tory, but with a personal wealth of between £7.5-9 million, he’s not that representative either. Perhaps the only working class Tories allowed to rise to the cabinet table are those who have managed to acquire the kind of wealth that could buy a castle.
By way of contrast, there were 8 Tory Ministers (until the recent reshuffle) who were Old Etonians. Now I’m not suggesting that being an Old Etonian should disqualify you in any way from being a minister. But what I am saying is that I find it hard to believe that 8 of the most able people in the Tory Party all went to the same school. And if they did, that’s an even bigger problem for them still…
Mitchell’s gate-rage is toxic for the Tories, because it feeds into a narrative that voters already believe. When this morning people said “I can’t believe he said that”, they mean “I can’t believe he would say that out loud”, rather than “I can’t believe he would say that”. That certain Tories would say such a thing seems immensely believable. Plausible. likely even.
And the lack of recognisably “ordinary” people around the cabinet table reinforces the notion that “plebs” is actually how many of those who run our country actually feel about those of us it governs. And until that perception shifts – perhaps with more recognisable working class Tories (David Davis?) at the top table, the Tories are going to struggle to win over the country.
Labour has similar problems with the perception that our leaders are an out of touch political clique – but that, is for another post…