Andrew Mitchell is an arrogant fool who should have kept his mouth shut, adopted a bit of humility and did what he was told when he left Downing Street on Wednesday night. He might thus have saved himself and his government a good deal of trouble, but the fuss that has been generated by his apparent outburst at a police officer who dared to tell him which gate he could use is indicative of much deeper, serious problems for this government.
First, there has been an extraordinary sea change – yet to be fully remarked on I think – between the Tories and the police. From the time of their formation by the Tory Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, there has been an almost symbiotic relationship between the police and the Conservative Party. It reached its apogee under Margaret Thatcher, but in the mere two years of the Coalition government it seems to have all but collapsed. Home Secretary Theresa May was booed at the Police Federation conference, and the Met’s Police Federation Chairman, John Tully, has wasted no time in taking every media opportunity possible to condemn Mr. Mitchell and call for his resignation. Mr. Tully even suggested that the Prime Minister’s words in Manchester, where he was paying respects to the two murdered policewomen, were “hollow” words, during his interview on Newsnight. Dark times indeed, when even a Tory Prime Minister’s sympathy is thrown back in his face.
Now Mr. Tully is a very politicised individual, and the issue at stake is not so much to do with the way in which policing is conducted and far more to do with perceived threats to police pay and conditions. Nevertheless, whatever the cause, the Tories have opened up a front in their war on public servants that even their most pugilistic leader never dared open.
And the police are only the start of the problem. There is virtually no area of public service where the government is regarded with anything other than suspicion and even loathing. David Cameron’s fine words about school sports during the euphoria of the Olympics were – for teachers – an earlier example of hollow sentiments expressed by a man who had presided over the denuding of school sport with apparent complacency. Jeremy Hunt is going to have to be closer to the health service professionals than he was even to the Murdochs if he is to have any chance of winning some of them back.
The “public school snob” is the unwelcome description being ascribed to Andrew Mitchell, and there is a real danger for the government that this becomes more generally applied to them all. Despite the fact that Michael Gove was educated in the state comprehensive sector, or that Mr. Cameron himself relied gratefully on the NHS during the years of his first son’s health difficulties, the perception persists that this is a government which regards public services as being only for the poor and non-coping. It is a disastrous perception. It widens the gap between the governors and the governed to an unacceptable level. Mr. Mitchell’s outburst, meanwhile, suggests a sense of entitlement and superiority hardly merited by actions.
The furore over the Chief Whip’s unfortunate loss of temper – and some might say of mind – will subside soon enough, with or without his resignation. What is less likely to go away is the lack of empathy between Mr. Cameron’s government and the people he governs. His recent cabinet reshuffle unfortunately lurched him further in his alienation from the centrist majority. If he wants to have any chance of recovering the political narrative and being re-elected in 2015, he should return to the modernising roots that served him so well in opposition, and hang the rightists. Battles with his own right-wingers are infinitely preferable to battles with the wider British public.