After the Mitchell resignation David Herdson asks: Who lied?

After the Mitchell resignation David Herdson asks: Who lied?

Who can’t we trust: a minister or a PC?

Andrew Mitchell did not resign because he swore at a policeman. For all that such a comment might be unacceptable, he’d probably have survived had that been all that the story was about. One aspect would have been the jobsworth nature of the officer involved; another larger part is that the story really wouldn’t have had anywhere to go. What gave it legs was the word ‘pleb’.

That one word provided the hook on which to hang the political narrative of the last month. The mere mention of it was what made Mitchell’s position untenable. For as long as he sat round the cabinet table, opponents of the Conservatives would have ensured that it remained the prism through which other stories were viewed. The problem is that there’s no certainty that he said it.

    There are only three possibilities: one is that Mitchell lied and he did call the policeman a pleb; another is that the policeman lied and made that aspect of it up; the third is that neither lied but that the policeman misheard what Mitchell shouted over his shoulder.

We can probably discount that third option. From his resignation letter, there doesn’t look to be anything that could have been misheard as ‘pleb’. It is possible that the PC could have misheard something else but then that would also contradict Mitchell’s account. Indeed, one aspect of the whole affair which remains unexplained is why Mitchell failed to state exactly what he did say until yesterday evening.

The answer may be that to have done so would have undermined an earlier account in which he claimed he didn’t swear. Given that the whole scandal is a question of trust about who to believe, that clearly wouldn’t have been good. On the other hand, the only evidence for the policeman’s account is his own notepad, the contents of which unaccountably ended up in a national newspaper, raising data protection questions and possibly official secrets ones too, never mind the Leveson angle. Coming at the time of the report into the police cover-up about Hillsborough merely reinforces the point that police accounts aren’t infallible.

And yet this is more than mere fallibility. Almost certainly, someone lied. That’s something which for all their reputation, politicians are usually loathed to do for precisely the reason that they put their career on the line when they do. Far better to evade, prevaricate, change the subject, answer a different question or give a partial answer. The reason we remember the actual lies is because they are rare (and because of the consequences that invariably follow).

What’s troubling is even the possibility that a cabinet minister was forced into resigning on the back of something a policeman made up. Of course, it can be argued that Mitchell should have gone simply for what he has admitted. Perhaps he should – but in reality that’s not why he did.

David Herdson

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