Call a 'beer summit' to bring overhyped 'gategate' to a close
Andrew Mitchell might be Flashman, but the police are hardly unblemished Dixons of Dock Green
ONE THING I just can't work out – why didn't the armed policeman manning the gates to Downing Street just open them for Andrew Mitchell and let him ride his bike onto Whitehall? Why was he ordered to dismount and use a side entrance?
After all, he is one of the three major political figures who have their offices in Downing Street: PM at Number 10, Chancellor at Number 11 and Government Chief Whip at 9. I assume that the copper's job spec must read something like: keep a sharp eye out for suspicious types hanging around the gates to Downing Street but make sure you open them sharpish when anyone important wants to come through.
The incident log leaked to The Daily Telegraph gives us a clue, and, incidentally, reeks of the officious jobsworthiness that some contemporary police officers are notorious for.
The first sentence includes the phrase "…I had to deal with a man claiming to be the chief whip and who I later confirmed to be such and a Mr Andrew Mitchell". Please. The policeman should have known.
No one appears to like Mitchell very much - a number of vivid tales have emerged of his boorishness - and he was an investment banker to boot. But having the "manners of an enemy non-commissioned officer" in Dorothy L Sayers's great phrase is hardly a sacking offence.
Actually, as a young man he was, briefly, an officer in the Royal Tank Regiment – serving on Cyprus in armoured cars as a UN peacekeeper. Unlike many of his critics, he has actually served Queen and country. Maybe that's where he gets his no-nonsense attitude to doorkeepers from.
I have some sympathy. It is a sign of a properly run, on the ball and disciplined army unit to have a secure and smoothly running main gate. Sentries are expected to recognise the senior officers who work there and open up in quick time accompanied by a smart salute. This seems to be too much to expect from the "elite" police protecting Downing Street.
As for the word "pleb", which Mitchell is alleged to have used, somehow it doesn't quite ring true. It's as if the policemen in Downing Street have been watching too much Downton Abbey. In any case, it's not much of an insult - the reverse of calling someone a toff - no more.
The correct procedure for a copper at the gates of Downing Street who felt some government big wig had been rude to him would be to get over it. If that could not be arranged then perhaps a quiet grumble to the Superintendent in the canteen. Mitchell would no doubt have said sorry at some point when he had cooled down. It looks to me as though the police were only too happy to take offence.
After Mitchell's second public apology yesterday in which he accepted he had behaved badly but disputed, again, the precise form of words attributed to him by the press – John Tully chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation (ie. chief shop steward of the police trade union) said this:
"It is not the words - police officers are quite thick skinned - what infuriates me here is that a minister is saying police officers are liars. There is a clear difference of opinion, and we need to establish what happened."
I am surprised Mr Tully had the time or the chutzpah to say this - on the day a national newspaper unearthed the story of ten years of politically correct police dishonesty over sexual grooming scandals in the North; and the day a detective Chief Inspector from his own force was charged with selling information to the News of the World.
Commenting on the full version of the incident report leaked to and published in The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday morning Tully added: "I know who I believe."
I am afraid it's not as clear cut as that. Tully's reaction and that of other senior police figures who have commented seems to be a little out of control. And out of touch. They have tried to portray the affair as Flashman versus Dixon of Dock Green. Mitchell is undoubtedly a Flashmanesque figure and even went to the same school, Rugby. But few people now regard the police as the unblemished descendants of Dixon of Dock Green.
If the police want to get heavy about the incident what about raiding the offices of the Telegraph? By what authority did it publish the log? Modern politicians, and policemen to be frank, often misuse notions of national security, but the security arrangements for Downing Street and the confidential reports about incidents within the complex are clearly matters of national security. There is a strong argument that the newspaper and the policeman (unless it was the Downing Street cat) who leaked the information should both be prosecuted.
But the prime minister is right: time to draw a line under the affair. President Obama came up with a civilised conflict resolution format for a similar incident in the summer of 2009. An argument (based on race rather than class) between a black Harvard professor and a Massachusetts policeman who had tried to arrest him threatened to spiral out of control after an unwise presidential intervention on prime time TV.
The two men were invited to have a beer with the president beneath a magnolia tree on the White House lawn. The press christened it the 'Beer Summit'. Everyone, including Obama, was off the hook.
Mr Cameron should do the same with Mr Mitchell and the policeman. Shared pints of good English beer (not, please, Bud Light - President Obama's preferred tipple) in the autumnal splendour of the Downing Street garden should help to bring this unfortunate but over-hyped episode to a close. ·