U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron came under renewed pressure to fire Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell for abusing police officers last month, after five Conservative lawmakers called for him to go.
Mitchell’s Cabinet-level position puts him in charge of Tory party discipline, ensuring lawmakers don’t rebel on government votes. He was appointed last month with a brief to restore loyalty to the Conservative parliamentary party, the most rebellious of any in the House of Commons since at least the Second World War.
The five lawmakers, who declined to comment publicly because it’s an internal party issue, said during the Tories’ annual conference in Birmingham, central England, that Mitchell now lacks the authority to tell them to behave. As Parliament returns next week, Cameron needs to regain control of his parliamentarians.
“The chief whip was facing major problems, whoever it was,” Philip Cowley, the author of a book on parliamentary revolts and professor of politics at Nottingham University, said by telephone. “There’s the frequency with which members of Parliament rebel, their frustration about their career prospects, and about the direction of the government.”
Cameron has refused to fire Mitchell, who apologized after the Sun newspaper reported on Sept. 21 that he swore at police officers guarding the prime minister’s London residence after they stopped him riding his bicycle through the main gates, telling them they were “plebs” and should “learn their place.”
The incident came a day after two policewomen were shot dead answering an emergency call in Manchester, northern England, and as Cameron’s coalition government axes thousands of police jobs to tackle the budget deficit.
Mitchell has apologized for the outburst, while refusing to say what he told the officers. Cameron and other ministers have said a line should be drawn under the incident. The police have decided to take no further action.
A trade trip Cameron took to New York and Brazil last month was dominated by questions about Mitchell’s fate. Cameron said the matter had been “damaging” for the Conservatives.
Cameron can take some comfort from focus groups that show the incident isn’t at the front of the public mind, according to Rick Nye of pollsters Populus Ltd.
“They don’t mention the affair spontaneously but recall the row if prompted,” Nye said in an interview. “They think most politicians -- not just Tories -- probably secretly share his sentiments. When shown the alleged words, ‘know your place’ is more damaging than swearing or ‘plebs.’”
Hissed and Booed
While he had his leader’s support, Mitchell decided not to attend the party conference, the only Conservative member of the Cabinet not to do so. At one fringe event during the gathering, activists hissed and booed as a video containing a clip of Mitchell was aired, though some applauded.
Mitchell, who was moved to chief whip from his role as international development secretary in an overhaul of Cameron’s Cabinet on Sept. 4, denied using the words attributed to him by the Sun. “Pleb” is an abbreviation of the word “plebeian,” an insult directed at one’s perceived inferior.
“I have apologized to the police officer involved on the gate and he’s accepted my apology and I hope very much that we can draw a line under it there” he told reporters in London on Sept. 24. “I didn’t show the police the amount of respect I should have done. We should all respect the police, they do an incredibly difficult job.”