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It's an unfair cop


I am not the first person to have found myself in trouble with the Downing Street police. In his Downing Street diaries, The Fringes of Power, Jock Colville records that a policeman tried to arrest Winston Churchill on his return to Downing Street for having excessively bright sidelights, only to be briskly dismissed with a loud “Go to hell, man!”. More recently a head of MI6 was blocked from entering Downing Street to attend his own leaving party. He reportedly called the police on the gate a very rude word indeed.

Nor was this my first experience of "gate trouble". Two-and-a-half years ago, arriving from the Department for International Development on my bicycle at the rear entrance to Downing Street, late in the Cabinet Room.

Immediately after the meeting I asked to see the head of security at Downing Street and raised the issue with him. There was never any further problem at the back of Downing Street where I became a familiar figure on my bike, always welcomed cheerily and helpfully by the police.

On the evening of September 19 this year I left No 9 Downing Street - the office of the chief whip - at about 7.30pm. It had been a long day; I was running late for a speaking engagement. I had had meetings with a number of colleagues who had been sacked or not promoted in the reshuffle and I was emotionally drained. I had been through the front gates several times already that week but not always without difficulty. They are heavy and the police have to open them by hand. On this occasion the conversation with the police was a follows:

Me: "Please open the gates."

Police:" No. Please get off your bike and leave by the pedestrian exit."

Me: "Please open the gates, I am the chief whip; I work here at No 9."

Police: "No, you have to get off your bike and wheel it out."

Me: "Look, I have already been in and out several time today. Please open the gates."

Police: "No."

With that I complied with the policeman's request and wheeled my bike across the pavement and out through the pedestrian entrance. As I did so, I muttered - though not directly at him - "I thought you guys were supposed to f******help us.' To which the policeman responded: "If you
swear at me I will arrest you." Whereupon I cycled off. As I left, I think I said that I would pursue the matter further the next day.

It was the following afternoon that a senior Downing Street official telephoned at about 2pm. "Houston, we have a problem" was his succinct analysis. The Sun had got hold of my "altercation" with the police the previous night. Could I look in and see the Downing Street press team and agree a response?

With hindsight I now displayed stunning naivety. 'Is it a big story?" I asked.

"Yes, massive. Did you lose your temper with them? Did you call them f******plebs and morons?"

"Of course not," I said, horrified and incredulous at the suggestion.

"Well, The Sun says you said that, and more, and are planning to run it on the front page tomorrow."

Following the 4pm daily meeting, the prime minister asked me exactly what I had said. I looked him in the eye and gave him my word that I had not used the awful toxic language attributed to me. And I do not think that members of the Downing Street inner core believed that I did. The
words reek of a bad caricature of what an ill-mannered 1930s upper-class lout might say. Alas, as I was to discover, for much of the media, they fitted the bill perfectly.

A line for the press was drafted by the Downing Street media team. Bluntly, we did not think the public would believe the word of a Tory minister over a police log book, allegedly backed up by three officers. So in the statement I apologised for the words I did use and for not treating the policeman with the respect he deserved.

That was the truth: although I never swore directly at the police officer, I did use bad language in his presence for which I unreservedly apologised - several times. I plead guilty to many human failings, but I did not lose my temper and I did not rail against the police. In exasperation I used an expletive. That was it.

Once the decision to apologise was made and the apology accepted by the policeman in question, the strategy was to ride out the storm, which we thought would last for a couple of days. I loaded all my government papers in a red box and went straight home to Nottinghamshire (not, as one newspaper colourfully invented, "went into hiding clutching two designer suitcases") In Nottinghamshire, thank goodness, were Sharon, my wife, and both my daughters preparing for the younger's 21st birthday. None of us had the faintest idea what was about to take place.

Late that Thursday evening - as The Sun was putting the final touches to Friday's "Plebgate" front page - an extraordinary email from a citizen of Ruislip, west London, dropped into the inbox of the deputy chief whip, John Randall. It purported to be a detailed account of my altercation. Larded with detail, it gave every appearance of being designed to stand up the police log and The Sun's splash. It was completely untrue. I was devastated. This was a stitch-up. I heard about the precise wording the next Monday night. Surrounded by my hugely concerned family, I simply could not explain what was happening to me.

When the prime minister was shown the email, he not surprisingly found it both compelling and decisive. He phoned me on the Tuesday morning to say I'd have to go. I took the call while cleaning my teeth in the bathroom of the house where I had gone into hiding from the press. After
a tense six-minute conversation in which I categorically protested my innocence - "David, how will you feel in six weeks' time if this is exposed for the lie that it is?" - he agreed to institute inquiries through the cabinet secretary.

I now know a good deal more about that email and how calculatedly dishonest it is. The man from Ruislip purported to be a member of the public who had witnessed my altercation with the police while outside the Downing Street gates with a nephew "visiting from Hong Kong".

His nephew had mistaken me for Boris Johnson. Ruislip Man, claiming a keen interest in politics, had correctly identified me as Andrew Mitchell, MP for Sutton Coldfield. The obscenities he attributed to me were almost exactly as in the police log book. He had been disgusted by my behaviour, he said, as had other tourists at the gate, one of whom may have "inadvertently" filmed me ranting away.

This vile email - replete with capital letters and mis-spellings - was utterly untrue. The sender is not a member of the public but a serving police officer and member of the diplomatic protection squad, and he was nowhere near Downing Street that night.

For the next three weeks these awful phrase were hung round my neck in a concerted attempt to toxify the Conservative party and destroy my political career. I never uttered those phrases; they are completely untrue.

As part of Downing Street's investigation, John Randall attempted to question the emailer and indeed to meet him. He declined to co-operate at all but sent a second email to say that he stood by the first.

A useful piece of evidence, which I was also unaware of at the time, was the CCTV footage of the Downing Street gates. Officials in Downing Street viewed it, and my wife was insistent that we should see it ourselves; but throughout this entire period I was unable to engage in any sensible thought or strategy. When we did finally see the CCTV footage, long after I had resigned, I believed that it vindicated me.

According to the police log book all the toxic phrase - "Best you learn your f****** place. You don't run this f****** government. You're f****** plebs" - were spoken while I was wheeling my bike from the main gate to the side gate and through to the pavement. The cameras filmed me
from behind, but I believe they show pretty clearly that there was no such angry conversation.

There is no sign of any loss of temper or bodily aggression, and the scene takes only 16 seconds - hardly time for such a full-on rant. Unfortunately no one from the Cabinet Office, who saw the CCTV, realised the significance of this discrepancy: it was not the aspect in which they were interested.

Both the police log and the email from Ruislip also claimed that members of the public standing on the pavement outside the Downing Street gates were visibly shocked by my bad language. But a CCTV camera covering that stretch of pavement shows no member of the public in front of the gates and only one person walking past. Another lie.

I still don't know from where these toxic phrases came. But their publication triggered 33 days of continuous presas assault. A tsunami of vitriol was poured on my head as my reputation was assailed from all sides and my character assassinated. Conor Cruise O'Brien once aid that being the object of attention of Britain's tabloid press was like being picked up and minutely examined by a giant skinhead. But he didn't explain that, once the storm starts and you are "open season", journalists can say pretty much what they like and get away with it.

Knowing none of this - neither the apparent conspiracy nor how bad things were going to become - I sought the help of trusted friends on that first Thursday night as The Sun went to press.

For any minister caught up in any sort of press scrape Henry Macrory, a former head of media at Central Office, is simply indispensable. Liked and trusted by the parliamentary press corps and the Tory party alike, he became the firebreak between me and the media over the next 4 weeks.
His support and stamina were simply brilliant. I advise every Tory minister to carry round his phone number in their back pocket.

By Friday morning the media were in full cry. The hideous caricature of me that emerged at the hands of the press prompted almost 1,000 hostile emails over the first weekend alone. I clung to the hope that my friends, family, constituents and the many I had got to know in international development - my passion for the past 7 years, in opposition and in government - would simply not recognise the monster the tabloid media were creating. It took a huge toll on me, as it would
on any human being, and on my family.

Over the next six days the attacks reached a crescendo. I soon stopped reading the newspapers and could not bear to turn on the TV, where Sky had my name running along the tickertape at the bottom of the screen for what seemed like an eternity.

Ken Clarke, who was wonderfully supportive, rang to say that although he had regularly been attacked in the pages of The Sun and Daily Mail he had never achieved a double front-page attack from both on the same day, as I had. I realised that I was now caught up in a perfect storm. The
Police Federation was fighting the government over pay and conditions. The media were fighting the government over Leveson. Two brave policewomen had lost their lives in a dreadful attack in Manchester only day before the Downing Street incident. And in addition there were almost no other new stories around.

That Friday, photographers and journalists started camping outside my London home. They were almost always polite - but intimidating. They stayed for more than a month. Each morning we would get up early and peer out of the top-floor window and a sinister black Audi would be there along with photographers and a TV crew.

On occasions they followed the children and my wife in cars and on foot. They interviewed my neighbours, begging for any adverse comment. My neighbours in my Sutton Coldfield constituency were wonderful, as were most in London who apparently said what a nice family we were. One, however, did not. Twenty-four years of apparently pent-up resentment burst into the public domain as this neighbour slagged us off - in particular, and unforgivably ,attacking my younger daughter.

Journalists also headed off to Swansea where they visited my in-law and begged for adverse comment. They tried to find my 92-year-old mother-in-law but got her address wrong. They pursued my 84-year-old dad, a former MP, who comes from a political generation that believes it is a civic duty to talk to the press.

As the tempo rose over the weekend it was agreed that I would do a "door step" with Sky outside the Cabinet Office at 8am on the Monday. My elder daughter drove me down to London from the Midlands. I had been advised to apologise - to grovel - as hard and as far as I could. I tried. I
apologised again for what I had said, refused to repeat the toxic words while at the same time denying I had uttered them, and tried to be reasonably dignified. Unfortunately, I sounded neither one thing nor the other: not sufficiently contrite, nor convincingly defiant. It was a
disaster.

The cumulative effect of all of this was taking its toll. By day four, I could not sleep. I also stopped eating. Weight dropped off me. I lost more than a stone in the first three weeks. Sharon lost almost as much. Day after day the press assault continued. On several days I simply could not get out of bed. I would sit for hours with my BlackBerry in one hand and my ancient mobile in the other. Virtually all press calls went through Henry and I learnt to await his call: "Ah, Andrew, another one I'm afraid - The Mirror has dug up someone who said that in 1987 ..."

And so it went on day after day as particularly The Sun found new and ingenious ways of keeping alive a relatively minor story that usefully served other agendas. Night-time was the worst. We would sleep for two hours and then wake, tossing and turning for the rest of the night as I
contemplated the destruction of my career.

As I faced the wall at three in the morning, after a day of further creative attacks, aware of yet more awful nonsense pending the next, I wondered if I could really go on facing much more of this. Alastair Campbell once said that the maximum number of days of media storm that a
government or an individual could withstand was 11. We were cruising toward the 30-mark.

I received support from surprising quarters. A brilliant article by Chris Mullin, the former Labour minister, appeared in The Times. As a former chairman of the home affairs select committee, he knows a thing or two about the police.

I was defended by nine senior journalists in thoughtful pieces in the national press but they were drowned out by the daily assault of the tabloid media.

A creative new line of attack was launched in the Daily Mail: Rwanda. Britain has no strategic interest in Rwanda but, under both Labour and Conservative governments, it has helped simply because it is the right thing to do. The Rwandan government uses British taxpayers' money well
and together we have made huge progress in tackling the extreme poverty in a country that has been to hell and back.

I know Rwanda well and had been punctilious a international development secretary about ensuring a proper consultative approach to our actions there. Yet in breathless and wildly inaccurate journalism the Daily Mail sought to rubbish both me and the widely respected Conservative party social action work in Rwanda, Project Umubano.

It told its readers that when I visit I luxuriate in the splendour of the Serena hotel in Kigali surrounded by prostitutes while droning tree frogs muffle the scream of those being tortured by the regime. I have never stayed at the Kigali Serena. Conservative volunteers stay in a Christian mission. The only time I have visited the hotel was to meet the cohort of British journalists who stayed there in 2007 when David Cameron visited Rwanda as a volunteer on Project Umubano.

The Police Federation did everything in its power to keep the story going. During the early days of the press storm I received a call from Ian Edwards, chairman of the West Midlands federation, which covers my constituency. After solicitously commiserating with me, he asked for a meeting to "clear the air and look to the future". I agreed on condition that it would be constructive and would be under the aegis of my work a a constituency MP.

Edwards agreed that the location would not be disclosed to the press. In reality, of course, the federation lined up as much press as it could muster. I considered postponing or cancelling the meeting because of its bad faith but thought this might be interpreted as cowardice.

Worse ensued. On Friday, October 12, Fleet Street's finest made their way from London to Sutton Coldfield. The royal town had not seen such press attention since the Queen visited for Scouting's 50th jubilee in Sutton Park in 1957. There were no fewer than nine TV crews outside my office in the high street for this "private meeting". Our encounter ranked above the Jimmy Savile scandal in the news schedule.

Three federation officials - minus Edwards, who had withdrawn - arrived more than half an hour early and told the waiting journalists that they would demand to know what I had said at the Downing Street gates. If I failed to tell them, I must be sacked, they said.

Our meeting started at 5pm with a suitable expression of amazement from the three of them at how the press had discovered the location. During the next 45 minutes I told them exactly what had happened, precisely what I had said and what I had not said. When I asked if they would like
to talk about the root cause of their disagreement with the government and the possibility of a meeting with the police minister to discuss their members' concerns they expressed no interest whatsoever. They brought the meeting to a close at 5.45pm sharp in order to give the nation the benefit of their views at the top of the six o'clock bulletin .

One of them announced to the reporters outside that I had refused to tell them what I had said at the gates and that I should resign or be sacked. As it happens, however, a Conservative press officer had taped the whole encounter. The tape shows clearly that they were not telling the truth. But the Fed was on a roll; why should the truth get in the way of a good story? The media, drooling at their every word, lapped it up.

It was with a sense of relief that I returned to parliament on October 15 for the new term, but the scale of the problem became increasingly clear. While most colleagues of long standing - the older intake of MPs - simply did not believe the police account and were sure I would never have spoken in such a way, the 2010 intake were a very different matter.

To these new MPs I was a remote figure who had been "offshore" for the first 2 years of the parliament as international development secretary. Few of them knew me well; most hardly knew me at all; and what they had now learnt was poisonous. As one journalist put it: "The newspapers
have been saturated by anecdotes of arrogance and meanness. It seems that no one had anything nice to say about Andrew Mitchell."

The 2010 intake are hugely varied, hugely talented and hugely able. When the prime minister had asked me to be his chief whip I had strongly resisted on the grounds that I did not know this new intake at all and needed time to get to know them first. In the end a concerted effort by those closest to the prime minister to get me to do the job, coupled with a feeling I had that one should do what the prime minister asked in a reshuffle, got the better of my earlier misgiving .

In the Commons that week the view of the 2010 intake began to assert itself. They were more than half our backbench strength. Many with small majorities, others holding key seats in the north, they had not seen a media storm as violent as this before. To them the damage had been done - regardless of whether I had used this toxic language or not - and a sacrifice needed to be offered to appease public anger.

I sat through parliamentary questions on the Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday, my 27th day turning on the spit, was the key. We believed that if prime minister's questions went well I would be clear of the worst. In the event Ed Miliband launched as personal an attack on a member of parliament as I can ever remember.

David Cameron easily saw him off, but later that day the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers met. I had more or less decided that I needed its clear backing to stay. I am told that 12 people spoke: four were against me and the other eight in favour.

At the regular weekly chief whip's meeting with the 1922 officers (needless to say described in the press as "a crisis meeting" to which I had been "summoned") I asked for a supportive statement from the chairman and his colleagues. Although with one exception they were personally very supportive, they felt unable to give it.

Meanwhile my colleagues in the Whips' Office were being put in an impossible position. I had made clear that they should report to the deputy chief whip on backbench opinion about me, so that Downing Street could have an impartial source of information. All bar two of the whips
showed personal loyalty to me, but they were clearly torn because they were hearing mixed views from their "flocks" - the colleagues for whom they are responsible.

In addition Labour was now threatening an opposition day debate the next week centred on the police and the chief whip, with a motion under an arcane procedure to cut the chief whip's salary. The unattractive prospect of whipping a reluctant party to preserve my pay beckoned. The chief whip is the holder of the one office that needs at the least the passive acquiescence of his parliamentary colleagues. Even the stalwart loyalty and support of the prime minister - which in virtually any other situation would have been decisive - was not enough to enable me to carry on.

On that Wednesday night the Whip's Office dined with John Major in the Heraldry Museum in Islington. Sadly, the deputy chief whip, John Randall, did not turn up. During the course of an otherwise enjoyable evening my gloom deepened. By the next morning I had decided my position
was untenable. I consulted four trusted colleagues. The prime minister was off to Europe to bat for Britain. I made arrangements to see him on his return.

The press furore had calmed down. At least I could be master of the decision I wanted to make and not have anything forced upon me. It was not the press or the Fed or Labour that had got me in the end - hard though they had all tried. It was, as I said to the prime minister in my
resignation letter, that regardless of the rights and wrongs I'd concluded that I could no longer do the job.

I left home to go to Chequers, pursued as ever by a photographer, and arrived at 4.20pm. The prime minister had been up most of the night negotiating with his European colleagues. It was not a difficult conversation. Many resignations are accompanied by a degree of needle between No 10 and the departing minister. In this case I had nothing but gratitude for the way the prime minister and his closest political colleagues had stuck by me.

I gave my resignation letter, which I had first drafted on day four of this saga, to the resident "garden girl" Downing Street secretary who kindly typed it. ("Have you done many of these before?" I asked. "Oh yes - quite a few actually.") We released it, along with the prime minister's generous response, just after 6.15. Forty-five minutes later, in the pouring rain, I left Chequers as a backbencher.

I treasure a text that the political editor of The Sun sent me soon afterwards: "Hi Andrew I'm sure I'm the last person you want to hear from now but I just wanted to say how sorry I am personally for you about the toll that events of the last few weeks has taken. Perhap not yet but I do hope one day that we might be able to discuss things and hopefully over another lunch." He had launched the story and done everything he could to keep it going as an "anti-toff' campaign -
wandering around the Lib Dem party conference wearing an "I'm a pleb" badge despite his own privileged background.

More welcome was the surprise awaiting me a couple of weeks ago when I went to the home of a friend for what I thought would be a quiet dinner. A crowd of about 80 was there: close friends, people I knew from my international development work, friends from parliament, people who
had supported my family, my old dad. It was the first time I felt a spark of happiness during this horrible affair. I considered making a resignation statement in the House of Commons. Indeed I drafted one. But there was no point; my parliamentary colleagues would have sat there wishing I would let the matter drop while the inhabitants of the press gallery would not have given me the time of day.

I don't particularly blame the press for pursuing a good story when one is offered on a plate. I don't even blame the opposition for seizing hold of a convenient stick with which to beat the government. I do, however, blame police elements for not following the proper complaints
procedure - if that is what the officer involved had wanted to do - but instead leaking a confidential and inaccurate alleged log, and for launching a smear campaign against me in pursuit of their own particular agenda.

Why did that log contain details that are neither consistent with my own recollection or the CCTV footage? Why did the Police Federation pursue this story when the officer concerned made no official complaint and accepted my apology to him? I am quite happy to conclude that he had nothing to do with what followed, but why did he not put a stop to it?

The dangerous and corrupt relationship between the police and certain newspapers hae been exposed again and again during the Leveson inquiry. Now I have had a taste of how extraordinarily powerless an individual is when trapped between the pincers of the police on one side and the press on the other. If this can happen to a senior government minister, then what chance does a youth in Brixton or Handsworth have?

For me, this has all been a salutary lesson.

Over the past week things have changed following the stunning revelations by Dispatches on Channel 4 last Tuesday. But this only occurred because, having found as much evidence as we could - the email and the CCTV - I decided my best chance of achieving any form of justice lay in giving it to highly respected and independent broadcast journalists and leaving them to pursue the truth. I decided not to expect justice from the police or from a government machine that
inevitably would have other priorities in these circumstances.

Now, following the Channel 4/Dispatches expose, there is a serious police investigation. I hope that the 30-strong taskforce working under an impressive senior officer will pursue the truth without fear or favour.

If you had told me on September 19 that the sort of experience I have had could have happened in this country today, I simply would not have believed you. But I do now feel as if my life-long confidence in our police has been misplaced. If it can happen to me, it could surely happen to anyone.

The fee for this article is being donated to the St Giles Hospice, Sutton Coldfield.

| Sunday Times



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