“Do you know who I am?” The classic line from someone perhaps less than confident in their position in the world or someone more confident than they should be. This is the basic foundation of what it is the Conservative Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, is alleged to have said to police officers guarding Downing Street last week. What has been reported of the incident is so littered with expletives and colourful use of the English language that it could have come straight out of a scene from The Thick of It.
Frankly, a cabinet Minister talking down to police guarding Downing Street is enough to win this week’s award in itself, but the way the story has been handled by Mitchell scores him even higher marks. His initial response to the allegations published in The Sun was sufficiently weak and ambiguous that it soon attracted the attention of the Police Federation who are eager to have a battle with the government over cuts to their budgets. This meant there was a new element to the story and additional voices to push the story on without Mitchell killing it once and for all.
If the political correspondents of the Lobby are having fun they aren’t going to stop digging. Sometimes the joy felt by journalists of keeping a story going is itself enough to do just that. A millionaire Conservative cabinet minister allegedly calling police “plebs” is just too delicious for the Lobby to ignore. I make a sad prediction that the Mitchell “Gategate” story will make more column inches than the shocking murders of two police officers in Manchester last week. It goes without saying that this isn’t right but does illustrate why Mitchell needed to act and shut this story down to prevent it continuing over the weekend, into its second political news week.
His further apology on Monday morning got everything right apart from the actual content. He turned up in a Volkswagen Polo not a ministerial Jaguar – important imagery - then proceeded to make his statement before saying he had work to do and entering the Cabinet Office building. It was a perfectly executed, pre-arranged, doorstep interview but unfortunately for Mitchell he forgot to say anything of note. He failed to clarify exactly what was said. It was nuanced in the extreme and merely repeated an apology which had already been made. It has been described as a non-denial denial and failed to address what it was he actually did say, one assumes because he is now so embarrassed about his words.
Clearly Andrew Mitchell said something which was deemed abusive or we wouldn’t still be talking about it. That in itself is enough to make him my Mis-Communicator of the Week. The continuing shambles of an apology is just making it all far worse.
Update: a year after this post it is now looking increasingly as if there has been a bizarre targeting of Mitchell and a subsequent 'cover up' by some police officers. This post by Paul Goodman summarises things well . Therefore my using the phrase in the last paragraph "clearly Andrew Mitchell said something which was deemed abusive" was a touch loose on my part. That said, the reasons why I awarded Mitchell Mis-Communicator of the Week remain valid and hold lessons for anyone caught up in a crisis whether of their own making or, as it increasingly looks in this example, not.