Today marks the first anniversary
of a bizarre, and in some respects comical, sequence of events arising from a
minor incident involving a man, a bicycle and a policeman.
Minor incidents, history reminds
us, have a nasty habit of degenerating into full-blown political scandals, and
this one offers a perfect example of the genre. The precipitating moment occurred towards the
end of the day in question, when a smartly-dressed, bespectacled gentleman,
trousers neatly clipped to his ankles, wheeled a bicycle – his usual mode of
transport on working days – from his office at 10 Downing Street to the large security gate
at the entrance to the street. There, he
was stopped by a policeman, a member of the security detail on duty, who asked
him to use a side gate, in order to avoid opening the main gate, a procedure involving
what the police regarded as an unnecessary expenditure of physical energy.
A reasonable request, you might
think – but then again perhaps not, depending on your view of the degree of
inconvenience imposed. The owner of the
bicycle, Andrew Mitchell, who at the time was the government’s chief whip, apparently
found it highly inconvenient, and before pedalling home felt compelled to say
so, by his own admission employing a word best avoided in the presence of
children, vicars and, as this incident serves to demonstrate, officers of the
law. Taking umbrage, the officer
concerned threatened to arrest Mr. Mitchell, before relenting and letting him
The entire conversation lasted
less than a minute, and the matter might have ended then and there, without the
need to trouble prurient representatives of the media, especially as Mr.
Mitchell, under the impression that he had been overheard by passers-by,
apologised the next day for his intemperate language. But the moment of intemperance was allegedly not
confined to the word deemed offensive to vicars. In the course of his brief tirade at the gate,
Mr. Mitchell is alleged to have deployed another, far more insulting word. He called the policemen on duty that evening
‘plebs’ – or so it is claimed by those supposedly on the receiving end of it.
Mr. Mitchell has freely admitted
using the F-word but he has always denied using the P-word. Whatever the case, as soon as the incident
came to light – through a leak to the press, evidently by the police – he tendered
his resignation, a gesture to which his boss, the prime minister, offered, to
put it politely, no objection. Well, let
us not beat about the bush: he was fired.
The story immediately began to accrue
all the elements of a stage farce, with doors constantly opening and shutting, and
various characters appearing and disappearing in riotous procession. And almost immediately the affair inevitably acquired
the suffix applied these days to all scandals, political or otherwise: it
became a ‘gate’. Add ‘Plebgate’ to the lengthening
Mr. Mitchell portrays himself as
the victim of a police conspiracy. Unfairly
deprived, as he sees it, of his job and his reputation, Plebgate became a
festering sore. His health, physical and
mental, was said to have been affected for a time, to the extent that he may even
have considered suicide. Although he has
since hauled himself up from such depths of despair, he remains aggrieved not
only that he has been ‘stitched up’ by a police conspiracy, but that his version
of events had been so readily disbelieved.
He is intent on restoring his reputation.
He may succeed. A few months back, CCTV footage shown on a
television documentary, Dispatches, suggested
that, in direct contradiction to police statements, there were no passers-by anywhere
near the Downing Street gates the evening the
offensive words were allegedly uttered and heard. A statement by one supposed eye-witness, and
offered by the police as evidence supporting their case, proved to have been
falsified. A second account was likewise
found to be fabricated. So far, eight
people have been arrested, five of them police officers. No trial dates have yet been set.
Why would the police resort to
such vicious tactics? Theories
abound. One is that some members of the
force resented government curbs on pay and recruitment, and were ‘out to get’ a
high-ranking minister as a measure of revenge.
There have been reports that other government officials have from time
to time clashed with the police when entering and leaving Downing Street. Mitchell may have been singled out because of
his reputation for high-handedness; he was by some accounts far from a popular
figure either in government or parliamentary circles.
The commissioner of the
Metropolitan Police, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, relatively new to the job, has
hardly covered himself in glory. At
pains to avoid yet another Scotland Yard scandal so soon after his accession, he
foolishly rushed to exonerate his officers “100 per cent”, only to be confronted
later with evidence casting doubt on their version of events. Rattled, he did what many men would have done
in the circumstances: he ordered an internal enquiry.
That investigation, code-named
has been under way for several months. The explanation for such slow progress that
emerges from the commissioner’s office is that getting at the truth always takes
time. But elsewhere suspicions are rife that completion of the report is being
delayed as long as possible to make police prosecutions less likely under certain
statutes of limitation.
If the enquiry is not completed
soon, the opprobrium that Sir Bernard is so anxious to avoid will be all the
‘Scotland Yard is on the case’
used to be a reassuring expression of confidence in results. Operation Alice had better deliver, whatever the
verdicts, and soon.