I knew Andrew Mitchell was toast a few weeks ago. It was a week or so after “pleb-gate” and the row seemed to have fizzled out. Except it hadn’t. The couple stood in front of me in the queue at Tesco were clearly talking about him. They were talking about “the Tory pleb fella”. This was one Westminster bubble political talking point that has jumped straight into the conciousness of the pub, the water cooler, the school collection and the bus stop.
It’s a ‘thing’ now, and worst of all for the Prime Minister, it’s a “Tory” thing.
Because there’s nothing worse than an anecdote that’s quick to tell but reinforces what people think deep down in their bones about politicians, or about a political party. As I said at the time – Posh minister in class based attack on police? Doesn’t get much worse…
And yet it does, because by allowing Mitchell to linger on, hobbled but not finished off like an injured pigeon hopping across a motorway. He’s just waiting for that inevitable Eddie Stobbart lorry to smash him into oblivion, but it’s an unedifying way to go. Staying away from a Tory Party conference that happened in his own city was a huge personal and professional embarrassment from which he may struggle to recover. But perhaps a week or being shunned in bars, drinks receptions and corridoors would have been worse. Andrew Mitchell is a rotting limb that David Cameron could really do with lopping off. That’s why Yvette Cooper called for him to go today – so that Cameron can’t get rid of him just yet.
But for the Tories, the damage is already done. Pleb-gate didn’t create the idea of out of touch Tories. But it reinforced it, and blew it up onto the front pages of an otherwise friendly national press at a time when Cameron could least afford it. By leaving Mitchell in place for so long though – and backing his version of events to the detriment of police morale – Cameron has allowed this episode to taint not just the reputation of Andrew Mitchell, but the Cameron project as a whole. The rot has set in. Lopping off the gangrenous, stinking mess of a Chief Whip isn’t much use anymore when the infection has spread. Too many people have defended him – including Cameron himself. Post-plebgate, 50% of people believe that Tory MPs see themselves as better than ordinary people. It’s a slow motion car crash for Mitchell personally but it’s also a fast paced retoxification for the Tory brand more generally.
He will linger on for a few weeks more, in an attempt to isolate and contain the damage. The effect will be to acheive the opposite. At present Andrew Mitchell’s outburst, and subsequent failure to handle something as simple as an apology, is a walking Labour Party Political Broadcast. Posh minister in class based attack on police? Doesn’t get much worse…except every day he lingers on, it does. In a few weeks no-one will remember Andrew Mitchell – but they’ll remember the disdain of “know your place” and “plebs”.
The career of the Chief Whip is nothing to Cameron, but his beloved brand? That’s everything. And it’s slipping away.