Andrew Mitchell, responsible for enforcing discipline among David Cameron’s Conservative lawmakers, quit after weeks of pressure over a verbal attack on police. The U.K. premier named George Young, a veteran lawmaker, to replace him.
The opposition Labour Party had led calls for Mitchell, the Tory party’s chief whip, to resign after The Sun newspaper reported Sept. 21 that he called police officers outside the premier’s Downing Street office in London “plebs” and said they should “learn their place” because they refused to let him cycle through the main gate.
“Over the last two days, it has become clear to me that whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, I will not be able to fulfill my duties,” Mitchell, 56, wrote in a letter to Cameron, released by the prime minister’s office yesterday.
Mitchell was only moved to the Cabinet-level position from the job of international development secretary at the start of last month when Cameron overhauled his government. Amid a continuing furor, he stayed away this month from the annual Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, where five Tory lawmakers called for him to go, saying he now lacked the authority to tell them to behave.
“Pleb” is an abbreviation of the word “plebeian,” an insult directed at one’s perceived inferior. Cameron, a distant descendant of royalty, and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, heir to a hereditary title, have both been labeled “posh boys” by Conservative and Labour lawmakers.
“I give you my categorical assurance again that I did not, never have, and never would call a police officer a ‘pleb’ or a ‘moron’ or used any of the other pejorative descriptions attributed to me,” Mitchell wrote. “The reason for my apology to the police was my parting remark ‘I thought you guys were supposed to f---ing help us.”’
With the story dominating domestic political news coverage in recent weeks, focus groups found the suggestion he had told officers to “know your place” the most damaging, according to Rick Nye of polling company Populus Ltd. In a parallel episode, Osborne was criticized yesterday after an aide tried to get him a free upgrade to a first-class seat on a train.
The Mitchell incident “played into perceptions of some of the untrue stereotypes about the Conservative Party,” Tory lawmaker Andrew Percy told the BBC. “We just have to draw a line under all of that now. We just have to get on with the issues of governing the country.”
Labour’s home-affairs spokeswoman, Yvette Cooper, said Mitchell had made “a sensible decision” to step down.
“It is very unfortunate that David Cameron allowed this to drag on so long,” she said in an e-mailed statement. “Letting it carry on like this sent a very bad signal to the police and public servants across the country about the government’s attitude.”
Police helped Osborne avoid a throng of reporters gathered at London’s Euston station to greet him yesterday after ITV News reported the discussion between his aide and a conductor. Virgin Trains said the episode had ended amicably, with Osborne paying for an upgrade.
Young, 71, a Tory lawmaker since 1974, was named as the new chief whip, the prime minister’s office said by e-mail. He returns to a key government post only six weeks after he was replaced as leader of the House of Commons in last month’s Cabinet overhaul.
He’ll take over from Mitchell the brief of restoring loyalty to the Conservative parliamentary party, the most rebellious of any in the House of Commons since at least the Second World War.
“Cameron does need a good chief whip,” Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University and author of a book on parliamentary discipline, said in a telephone interview. “He’s not in a situation where he’s got a huge majority. Party management is incredibly important.”
Cameron had refused to fire Mitchell. The altercation 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 “probably recognized this had become a very toxic and difficult issue” that “was going to make his job much more difficult,” Nick de Bois, a Conservative lawmaker, told the BBC. “This could have been cleared up a lot earlier.”