AFP – British politicians should be winding down for Christmas but Westminster is buzzing over toxic allegations that a police officer fabricated evidence against a senior Conservative, costing him his job.
Andrew Mitchell was forced to quit as the ruling party’s chief whip in October after police claimed he called them “plebs” when an officer stopped him from cycling out of the main gates of Downing Street a month earlier.
The so-called “plebgate” row hit Prime Minister David Cameron’s government hard as it appeared to reinforce the long-standing image of the Tories as a party that only represents the rich and powerful.
But Mitchell’s fortunes took a dramatic turn this week with allegations that a police officer lied about witnessing the exchange, in which Mitchell admits swearing but always denied using the word “pleb”.
The police officer, a member of Scotland Yard’s diplomatic protection group, is believed to have emailed his local MP pretending to be a member of the public who heard the outburst.
His account tallied with that given by police officers on duty in Downing Street, but it appears that he was not even there.
The policeman has been arrested on suspicion of misconduct in a public office, while another man, who is not in the police, was also arrested for helping him.
Newly-released CCTV footage also raises questions about the accuracy of the police log from that night, which was leaked to the press.
The row is causing trouble for Cameron, who was forced to defend himself on Sunday against criticism by friends of Mitchell who said the premier had left him “swinging in the wind”.
A Downing Street spokesman said Cameron had “deep sympathy” for Mitchell.
“The Prime Minister stood behind his Chief Whip through weeks of growing demands to sack him. It was only when it became clear that he could no longer do his job that his resignation was accepted with reluctance,” the spokesman said.
“Andrew Mitchell did not disagree with the Prime Minister’s approach throughout this period.”
Cameron has also appeared this week to leave the door open for Mitchell to return to cabinet, telling told reporters on a trip to Afghanistan this week there had been an attempt to “blacken the name of a cabinet minister.”
Mitchell served as international development secretary for more than two years before being appointed Tory chief whip in September, a senior job which involves enforcing discipline in the party.
He quit the following month after weeks of pressure over the police row.
Even members of the opposition Labour party have questioned whether Mitchell has been the victim of a smear campaign.
“I have known Andrew Mitchell for some years and I don’t believe that he used most of the words attributed to him,” said former Labour minister Chris Mullin in a radio interview on Wednesday.
He added: “It’s beginning to look as though he has been set up in some way.”
About 30 police officers are now working on the Mitchell case supervised by the police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).
But in a sign of the breakdown in relations between the government and police, Mitchell has reportedly said he has no confidence in the head of Scotland Yard, Bernard Hogan-Howe.
Mullin said he had also been wary of the way the Police Federation, the union for rank-and-file police officers, had used the row in their campaign against cuts to police forces’ budgets.
“I don’t think it’s in the public interest that the Police Federation should be allowed to reshuffle the government,” the Labour MP said.
The Police Federation said on Saturday it had ordered an independent review into “issues” raised by its handling of the row.
Federation chairman Paul McKeever had strongly criticised Mitchell following his reported outburst, but on Saturday he acknowledged concerns that the body had “stoked up” the incident.
Federation members had protested outside Mitchell’s office and at the Tories’ annual party conference wearing t-shirts saying “PC Pleb and Proud”, as part of a wider demonstration against budget cuts.
McKeever said he would apologise if the police were found to be liars.
“I am going to wait to see what happens in relation to the investigation. If he has been done a calumny in relation to what’s happened, I will be one of the first in the queue to apologise,” the federation chief said.