September 2012: Andrew Mitchell, a Tory MP, has just been appointed Conservative Chief Whip in the House of Commons. His political career is reaching new heights. He is now a Cabinet member, and is now widely regarded as a prominent figure of the Conservative Party as well as UK politics as a whole.
But, a month later, he resigns.
Well, according to Metropolitan police incident logs, Mitchell verbally abused three police officers at the gate of Downing Street after they had told him to use the pedestrian gate instead of the main gate to leave. The most shocking piece of information of the incident was the accusation that Mitchell had labelled the police officers as “plebs”.
The Oxford Dictionary definition of “pleb”: An ordinary person, especially one from the lower social classes.
One can imagine the media frenzy that followed. The Sun demanded an immediate resignation, labelling Mitchell a “millionaire minister with no respect for police officers”. Calls for his resignation came from all corners of society. Despite his vehement denials, especially that he did not use the derogatory insult “pleb”, Mitchell eventually succumbed to the pressure and resigned.
But in December, CCTV footage emerged of the incident. The footage seemed to call into question all accounts of what happened that night, especially the police’s. The video here explains:
Mitchell seemed to be justified. In response, the Metropolitan Police immediately began an investigation into the matter, Operation Alice.
However, the resultant report was non-conclusive. Neither side of the scandal was vindicated: Andrew Mitchell remained unemployed, while the credibility of the police officers was still under attack. Accusations of senior police interference in the investigation as well as a police cover up of the truth were prevalent.
First, the Commons Home Affairs Committee interrogated the three involved police officers, where all three stood by their collective account of events. Then, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), announced that they would also hold an inquiry into the matter. But, it’s been nearly two years since that September night and yet still no one has been vindicated.
Personally, the entire scandal is entertainingly fascinating. The inevitable fact that one side must be telling the truth and the other simply lying through the grit of their teeth means that the political connotations of the scandal are mouth-watering. Conservatives claim that the entire scandal was an intentional ploy to hurt the Conservative government, the police vengeful because of cuts to their funding and changes to employment conditions.
I can’t help but think what the repercussions for the police are if the IPCC report does conclude that they were lying and that they intentionally forced the sacking of a high-ranking Cabinet member.
Trust in the police has not been especially high in recent times. Many social commentators have noted that the relationship between the police and the public has deteriorated massively. The Hillsborough cover-up; the 20th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death; the revelation that the police are leaking information to the media; the integrity of the police and the authorities seems to be what’s at stake here.
If the IPCC delivers a guilty verdict for the police, there will undoubtedly be resignations and dismissals. But more significantly, public trust in the police and the authorities will decline to a new low, increasing tensions between the public and the police, rendering future enforcement more difficult.
As a side note, Plebgate is useful for Politics students studying the power of Parliamentary Committees. Although the details of the case continue to get murky, it is striking that a member of the Police recently apologised to a House of Commons Committee for not telling the whole truth in a previous encounter. Parliamentary Committees have very little power, except the power to publicise an issue. In this case, the apology was accepted.