Andrew Mitchell’s resignation does not leave David Cameron looking weak, as Labour is claiming tonight. The weekend press will have plenty fun with all this. But in the longer run, it’s the best option – and for everyone involved.
The Prime Minister had an unattractive choice: he could cut his Chief Whip adrift, and give the police unions the scalp they were seeking. Or he keep him around, sitting on the front bench at PMQs and becoming a permanent magnet for any ‘pleb’ jokes that Ed Miliband may want to crack. Cameron is fairly cool-headed about these things: he doesn’t get angry (like Major), or vengeful (like Brown) or pig-headed (like Blair). Instead, the PM tends to carry out a risk assessment – and on a daily basis. This means that he can change his mind, as the momentum of a story builds and the balance of risk changes. In the last few days, and especially after PMQs, keeping Mitchell started to look like the far riskier option.
I always thought Mitchell’s original offence, while outrageous, was not worth a Cabinet resignation. But the real damage has been inflicted by the cumulative effect. Mitchell has many enemies, left over from his days as a Maastricht-era whip. When he was made Chief Whip, many of his former victims hated the idea of a rerun. (“He’s going to run around like the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and people are just going to hate him,” one privy councilor told me). So when the GateGate scandal happened, his Tory enemies were delighted. The Police Federation – angry about the government cuts – saw a chance to repay David Cameron for his austerity. Ed Miliband could not believe his luck. Mitchell ended up surrounded by ill-wishers who were more numerous (and zealous) than his friends.
But what sunk him was the feeling, across the Tory party, that he was a dead man walking. That, even if he stayed, he would be just a simulacrum of a Chief Whip. His dream of reviving the Whip’s Office to its former glory – of having a government run by 9 Downing St as well as No10 and No11 – had been shattered. And after GateGate, Cabinet members started to complain that the ‘pleb’ remark had soured relations with their own protection officers: it was as if the police believed that Mitchell had said what all Tories secretly think. When the Daily Telegraph called for Mitchell’s head last Friday, it summed up a hardening consensus in the Tory backbenches.
Most damaging of all were the jokes. A Chief Whip can have survived hated, some thrive on it. But not many in politics can survive ridicule. Last week, two Tory MPs were on their way to the Spectator party at the Tory conference and found their route blocked by a security guard. One said to the other “where’s Andrew Mitchell when you need him?” Last week, Iain Duncan Smith joked about Mitchell being made High Commissioner of Rwanda, telling me “there are no gates in Rwanda”. The jokes were coming thick and fast, online and in the tearooms. Fairly or not, Mitchell had become one of the government’s largest liabilities.
And yet, Mitchell is so much more than this caricature. To be sure he finds it easy, perhaps too easy, to administer a tounge-lashing when one is required (as I once experienced, as a young reporter). But he was equally good at charm, gossip and friendliness. And what I think will be forgotten was just incredibly effective he was as a minister. Many CoffeeHousers ask: why on earth is Cameron giving so much in foreign aid, when his government has no money left? Why borrow from China to give to India? The answer is that Mitchell was bloody good at his job: which he defined as protecting the Tory promise raise state aid to 0.7 per cent of economic output. Set aside the fact that I regard disagree with the mission (as it ignores the incredible sums the British public already donate). Mitchell defended this policy through thick and thin. Quite a few in the military said they’d like him as Defence Secretary: who wouldn’t want such an effective a budget-defender in their department?
Mitchell uses his resignation letter to say, once again, that he never uttered the word ‘pleb’ – but that doesn’t matter. Almost three in four voters now think otherwise, and there’s no dissuading them. Humphrey Bogart never said ‘play it again, Sam.’ If a quote fits, it sticks. Mitchell was sunk by a ‘Thrasher’ caricature that was not quite erased. He was a strikingly effective champion of international development for seven years. It’s a shame that he’ll now be remembered mainly for what happened over seven seconds at a Downing St gate.Tags: Andrew Mitchell, Gategate, William Shatner