Andrew Mitchell isn’t going anywhere just yet, even if some of his ministerial colleagues are privately willing for him to face the high jump. But the story about him is still going somewhere because the chief whip apparently decided, quite unwisely, to intervene in the PMQs exchanges about him this lunchtime. But it’s not just cabinet ministers who are grumpy: the other whips are worried too.
Ed Miliband wisely started his questions with the unemployment figures, which meant Cameron’s later accusations that the Labour leader wasn’t interested in the real issues sounded weaker than they perhaps did as the Prime Minister planned them this morning. And he made a neat connection between the jobs and the Mitchell row by talking about cuts to police jobs.
‘Another promise broken, and it’s not just their promises, it’s their conduct as well. This is what the Mayor of London said last year: ‘…if people swear at the police, they must expect to be arrested’. According to the official police report a man called the police plebs, told them they should know their place, and used other abusive language. Can the PM now tell us did he say those words?’
Those watching Mitchell believe he mouthed ‘I didn’t swear’ at this point, which brings the whole story back to life as an accusation that the police made it up. One senior Tory I spoke to after the debate said ‘he has completely revived the story’.
I also understand that there are now only two whips in Mitchell’s team who do not feel that the chief whip’s authority has completely gone and that he will have no power when trying to convince would-be rebels to toe the line. Number 10 is aware of this and is nervous, apparently. The chief whip might not be resigning just yet, but the first threatened rebellion is going to be the true test of whether Mitchell can hold on to his job for the long-term.
P.S. Cameron didn’t appear as rattled by Ed Miliband’s questions as Labour might have hoped. But something clearly got under his skin. Perhaps it was the combination of Ed Balls barracking away throughout the session and the sight of Chris Bryant getting to his feet to ask why the Prime Minister hadn’t published all his communications with Rebekah Brooks. Whatever it was, something irked the Prime Minister sufficiently to release Flashman. He said:
‘The Honourable Member stood up in this House and read out a whole lot of Leveson information that was under embargo… much of it about me that was untrue and he never apologised. You know what, until he apologises, I’m not going to answer his questions.’
Which means there are now two live rows after today’s PMQs.
UPDATE: Guido is now reporting that one whip is threatening to quit over the Mitchell row.