Andrew Mitchell’s slow puncture still far from being mended


Were you standing near the junction of Downing Street and Whitehall at around 7.30 pm on Wednesday 19th September last year? You weren’t? Me neither. And that means we have something else in common. Neither you nor I know for sure exactly what happened, and what was said, when Andrew Mitchell wheeled his bike up to the Downing Street gates that evening and asked to be let through.

We’ve had the different versions, the murky CCTV tape, the crumbling of supposed eye-witness accounts, the delayed Met investigation, and the excited flurry of journalists swinging first this way and then that. In the eyes of many Mitchell has gone from pariah to wronged innocent. And all this without it being established exactly what he said, or how he said it.

Go back to the weekend immediately after the incident and re-read what the Sunday Telegraph reported, courtesy of an apparently well-informed “friend” of Mitchell’s:

“He does not dispute he lost it a bit… He is absolutely not accusing anyone of lying. He realises there may be differing versions of what was said but he is adamant he did not use the words [ie ‘fucking plebs’] he is reported to have used.”

He “lost it a bit”. We’ve all done it: lost our temper, lost our cool, and shouted. But how well, exactly, do we remember what it is we have said when we have “lost it a bit”? Is it possible that Mitchell did indeed speak in very harsh terms, if not quite in the version that was recorded in the police officers’ log? Other questions remain. Why did we have to wait so long for a public apology from Mitchell at the time? Was he prevented from speaking up by No 10? And why did the apology, when it finally came, fail to convince? Was it too qualified and half-hearted?

Many were perhaps too quick to condemn – convict – Mitchell a year ago. Some of the language in the police log is hard to take seriously. Has anyone really used the phrase “best know your place” since about 1965? And then there is the question of the Police Federation meeting in Mitchell’s constituency. It was wrong of the police officers to claim that Mitchell had not explained his version of events. The MP’s secret recording shows that he had done so. But – sorry – I don’t find this secret recording to be quite as persuasive a piece of evidence as others appear to. Mitchell knew he was being recorded. He was bound to offer the best possible version of events he could. What the officers may have been getting at was that they still didn’t find his explanation convincing. And that is why they – misleadingly – claimed he hadn’t offered any explanation at all.

Everyone is guessing. Both accounts – Mitchell’s and the one in the duty log – cannot be true. But perhaps neither account is entirely accurate. And here’s another question that no-one seems to be asking: why did the inflammatory version of Mitchell’s words and behaviour appear so fast? If this had really been a coldly calculated plot to bring down a cabinet minister wouldn’t it have been done a bit more carefully? Or is it possible that the police officers on the gate genuinely felt threatened, concerned about their future, and decided to get their retaliation in first, and quickly too? In other words, perhaps the phrase attributed to Mitchell, about the officers not having heard the end of this, represented the impression they truly had as the Chief Whip rode off. Mitchell does not deny swearing, and his “friend” concedes that he “lost it a bit”.

On Wednesday at the home affairs select committee we will hear more, claim and counter-claim, and perhaps get a bit nearer to the truth. No-one should be relaxed about the possibility of police officers inventing tales of misbehaviour and fabricating quotes to try and cause trouble. But having rushed to judgement a year ago, we should perhaps hesitate to do so again.

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