Sunday, October 21, 2012

Vale Mitchell

So farewell then, Andrew Mitchell, former chief whip, as the inevitable ending to the over-extended saga of his resignation. The boil may finally have been lanced, but the delay has been immensely damaging to David Cameron's status as Prime Minister - he looks less like a leader by the day. His post-speech conference boost has certainly been damaged - he's failed to retain anything like the same level of approval as Ed Miliband.

As I wrote at the time, this did not have to be fatal for Mitchell or overly damaging for Cameron. Take yourself back to that self-justifying apology on the steps of the Cabinet Office, which was trailed in advanced, but actually proved as insubstantial as one of Osborne's economic policies. Camera crews turned up, radio stations were ready to take the apology live, just after 8am - a prime spot to catch the nation's attention for the day. Imagine if Mitchell had apologised, fully and unreservedly, explained that he had had a hectic day, was tired and had since spoken to the officers involved, apologised to them personally and had offered a donation to a police charity, as a mark of the pride he felt in the competence of our police service. To my mind, that would have largely killed the story - Tory MPs could have rallied around him and the matter would not have dragged on through the conference period. The apology that wasn't just worsened the situation, as he effectively accused the police of lying and failed to offer any alternative statement.

That would have been the preferred option - embarrassing, but an overnight wonder, as I would have suggested that the apology be made on Saturday morning to grab the Sundays and shut the story down for that news cycle. Alternatively, if he felt that the behaviour was sufficiently offensive, Cameron also had a window where he could have sacked Mitchell, a window that probably extended a couple of days into the following week, but with the right apology, I think this could have been avoided.

What Downing Street failed to recognise was the level of damage that this story would do and precisely how far it plays into supporting an existing image of a privileged elite that looks down upon the governed, as well as being an appalling way to treat somebody whose job it is to stand between you and terrorists. Regardless of the truth behind the exchange (and, for the record, I believe the police version of events, as they had too much to lose if they invented the details), the public were prepared to buy into the perception.. This should perhaps be the greatest worry for the Tories - that nobody recognised the way that this story would cut through to the voters and it is indicative just how out of touch they are politically that this wasn't identified early on and resolved.

The story has polluted what should have been a clean narrative about the Conservative government - they've not been able to get their message through because of the noise. Now, from a Labour point of view, I'm delighted at this incompetence, but from the point of view of a citizen of this country, it genuinely worries me. Mitchell has been spoilt goods for weeks now, his credibility destroyed with the public and with the people he needs to shepherd - his own backbenchers. He had no hope of being able to discipline them or bend them to his will and Cameron should have spotted this earlier.

I don't believe for a second that Mitchell was resigned to try to deflect from Osborne's little class difficulty on the Virgin train to Euston - that would be extraordinarily stupid, especially as Virgin, with one eye on the retendering process, rapidly supported the Chancellor's version of events. What seems to have been the case is that a number of Cabinet Ministers have expressed their concern - there were rumblings of this at the conference, with ministers openly talking of Mitchell's demise - and the deputy chief whip is rumoured to have talked of his own resignation.

Also important was this week's Prime Minister's Questions, where Mitchell denied that he had sworn at the police, when Ed Miliband challenged Cameron over the matter. Now, I don't think that a heckle can be regarded as a statement to the House, but, given Mr Mitchell's statement in his resignation that he had said to the officer, "I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us," that doesn't seem to be entirely true. (We can split hairs about whether he swore AT the officer or merely in his/her presence).

The outcome has been that the image of the Tory party has been further tarnished with the electorate and the relationship with the rank and file police has broken down, probably irretrievably for this government. Cameron looks like he is not in control of his government, but more focussed on looking after his friends than looking after the country. He's wasted a prime opportunity to get his message across to the nation because of this distraction and he has nobody but himself to blame. He's undoing the work of his speech in reinvigorating his membership and reinforcing his leadership. Virtually every interview has been diverted onto this subject and it couldn't have come at a worse time for the Tories, with elections for Police and Crime Commissioners just a few weeks away and Tories across the country hopeful of winning some of those posts outside the major urban areas. Fatally for his career, Cameron is looking less like a leader with every turn of incompetence and if the polls continue to reflect this decline, the call for Boris may come sooner than anyone thinks.

Cameron used to run PR for ITV Digital. With his talents, I think we now see why it went bust. Looks very much like he's intent on wrecking the Tory party as well as the British economy.

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