“The only Party that spent two years in hibernation in search of a new image and came back as the Addams family”
In October 2012, Chief Conservative Whip Andrew Mitchell, a key figure in David Cameron’s cabinet, was accused of verbally abusing Downing Street police officers, swearing at them and calling them “f***ing plebs”. Mitchell admitted to swearing at them, but continues to deny using the word “plebs”. Nevertheless, under mounting pressure from the media and from within Parliament, Mitchell was forced to resign, having lost the support of many in the Conservative party, as well as the Prime Minister himself. The incident was quickly dubbed the “Plebgate Scandal” by press. Recently, however, the issue has resurfaced. CCTV footage of the event was released to the public and revealed holes in the information provided by the police log, causing David Cameron to come out in support of Mitchell again.
There are two important things to note here. Firstly, when the incident was first brought into the public sphere, it seemed like the whole world was ganging up on Mitchell. It was, for a long time, his word versus that of the police officers, and the first instinct of many in the press and of the general public was to believe the police officers’ version of events. Secondly, when Mr Mitchell first came under fire, the Prime Minister and his party were quite quick to distance themselves from the Chief Whip. Writing in The Sunday Times on the 23rd of December, Mitchell notes the phone conversation that he had with the Prime Minister, pressing his innocence whilst being told frankly by Cameron to step down from his post.
Let’s start off by addressing the latter. A lot of the controversy surrounding this issue comes down to the accusation that a Tory Minister called a public sector worker a “pleb”. The term “pleb” originates from Ancient Rome, meaning the name of the non-aristocratic class, and the connotations when used today are loaded with archaism and elitism- two ideas which David Cameron has tirelessly been trying to rid the Conservative brand of. In 1999 at a Labour Party Conference, ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered a famously damning speech about the ‘forces of Conservativism’, describing his opposition as “toxic” and “the party of fox hunting, Pinochet and hereditary peers: the uneatable, the unspeakable and the unelectable”. The idea of the Conservative Party being out of touch and elitist has cropped up more recently. In 2012, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries accused the Prime Minister and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, of being “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”. To be deemed unelectable and outdated by members of the opposition party is one thing; to have an MP within your party agree is quite another. Generally speaking, labels such as these do not make for the most electable political parties. It is therefore understandable that David Cameron was eager to distance himself from a Cabinet Minister who would only exacerbate these labels.
The fact that much of the general public and a great many in the press were quick to find Mitchell guilty of the acts attributed to him is key to the ideas discussed above. The fact that it seemed believable for many that a Tory Minister would call a policeman a “pleb” is not a positive reflection on attitudes towards the party. However, the celerity with which people condemned Mitchell may not be as simple an issue as all-Tories-are-evil-posh-boys-let’s-throw-rocks-at-them. Would we have experienced a different reaction from the press if it had been a Labour Minister who was accused of saying the same things?
It seems unlikely. Our quickness to believe the word of the policemen and “eye witnesses” could stem from the broader issue of widespread distrust of politicians. According to YouGov data, none of us seem to be particularly trusting of any politicians, and figures have decreased in recent years. Polls taken earlier this year show that 19% trust Senior Conservative politicians (down from 20% in 2003), and the figures for Labour aren’t much better; 23% would put their trust in Senior Labour politicians, down from 25% in 2003. The sharpest decreases, however, can be seen in the Tories’ coalition partners. Just 16% of those asked trust Senior Liberal Democrat politicians, down from 36%. So with figures as low as these across the political spectrum, it begs the question: is it just the Tory brand which is “toxic” or is British politics poisoned as a whole?