Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool
“Government Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell’s absurd Downing Street apology – so what words did you use then Mr Mitchell? – might be dismissed as an entertaining interlude. But who do we believe? Jobsworth coppers, or a well-lunched minister? An official police log claiming he was close to being arrested, or the word of a senior servant of the Crown?
“Individuals have gone for less. He was a highly-regarded International Development Secretary, but spending government money on helpful projects abroad is about as easy as it gets in a government job.
Minister for Discipline
“What really matters are any long-term political ramifications. Will ‘Gategate’ be merely a lively few days of knockabout theatre? Mitchell’s Chief Whip post is of the utmost importance. He is Minister for Discipline, responsible for bringing oft-reluctant Conservative MPs to heel in a rebellious parliament.
“Swearing and abuse form part of Mitchell’s job description, for sure, but it will also take subtler forms of persuasion to win over the considerable array of refusenik Conservative backbenchers, hugely irritated by much of their own (although they don’t see it as ‘their own’) coalition government’s agenda.
“As the excellent Revolts website informs us, Conservative MPs have rebelled in more than half of all parliamentary divisions, and half of the Conservative non-payroll vote (i.e. excluding ministers and aides) have also rebelled. Phenomenal levels of rebellion.
“For an organisation which prides itself on being the party of law and order and, some of the Blair years apart, has always led Labour on such issues, Mitchell’s altercation is acutely embarrassing.
“For Cameron, the risk of losing his Chief Whip only three weeks after appointment is the latest blow to a government increasingly seen as gaffe-prone. Poor judgements in appointments, the unravelling of the budget and public perceptions of out-of -touch toffs disconnected from mere ‘plebs’ have produced serious slippage in the polls. Serious, yes – terminal? Palpably no.
“Labour’s poll lead is unexceptional for mid-term, and Cameron is still seen as a more credible PM than Miliband. What matters for the Conservatives is whether, by the time they gather in Birmingham in less than a fortnight, the agenda has moved from Mitchell to Miliband, a man seen by many – but not all – Conservatives as Labour’s Achilles heel.”
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