According to Andrew Mitchell’s own account, as reported in the media, he was in a bad mood on that fateful evening last year when he bicycled along Downing Street and halted in front of the black iron gates at its entrance.
He had tried this before and perhaps the two officers guarding the gates were aware that he had tried it before and of what was coming next.
If Mr Mitchell was in a hurry, because he was late for a speaking engagement, one might think the last thing he would have wanted was to waste time in a futile argument with the two police officers over whether the main gate would be opened for him.
Presumably there was a (perhaps unwritten) policy that the main gate was not to be opened for cyclists (with the possible exception of motorcyclists) who were expected to dismount and wheel their bike through the pedestrian entrance.
It would appear to be common ground that Mr Mitchell spoke petulantly to the officers and he admits using foul language, which in itself constitutes a public order offence. The two police officers concerned say that Mr Mitchell’s use of ‘the F word’ was directed at them and that he also called them “plebs” – a word which it has been suggested was often on his lips. The two officers stand by their version of events to this day.
That is sufficiently serious in itself to warrant Mr Mitchell’s resignation. But perhaps equally serious is the petty nature which Mr Mitchell’s behaviour with regard to the gate reveals.
If he and perhaps others (does Mr Cameron still cycle to work, or was that a passing phase?) were unhappy with the police practice with regard to not opening the main gate for cyclists, then the matter should have been pursued through the proper channels. The last thing one should expect of a Cabinet minister would be to seek a pointless confrontation over the matter with police officers guarding the gate.
And yet this would appear to be what happened.
The Latin word pleb originally had a similar meaning to the English word commoner. The House of Commons, therefore, might very easily have been named the House of Plebs and a member of that chamber regarded as the exemplar of a pleb.