Inside 'plebgate': The story beyond the headlines

Police at the gates of Downing Street
Image caption Andrew Mitchell denies using the word "pleb" but has apologised for not treating the officers with respect

Last October, the Conservative Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, resigned over a row about what he told police officers as he tried to leave Downing Street on his bicycle. A BBC report examines the role of the Police Federation of England and Wales in his downfall and reveals internal divisions about how the "plebgate" row was used to attack the government.

In early September 2012, West Midlands Police officers angry with the government began to write to their Police Federation representatives, urging them to take action.

"We need strong, capable people who are willing to stand up and say what the government don't want to hear," wrote one.

"I honestly feel that the federation are a complete waste of time," said another.

The sentiment was shared by officers in the neighbouring constabularies of Warwickshire and West Mercia and the focus of their frustration began to turn to the federation itself.

"At that particular time unfortunately there was a bit of a void, in certain people's view, around what was going on at the Police Federation headquarters around the cuts," says Stuart Hinton, secretary of the Warwickshire Police Federation.

"We felt we needed to fill the void and make sure we were giving our members a voice."

Withdraw the campaign

The West Midlands local federations devised their own press strategy, putting up posters near the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham carrying the slogan: "Say hello to Dave, Say goodbye to your police service."

But although the campaign was popular with local officers, the Police Federation leadership, based in Leatherhead in Surrey, was uncomfortable with it.

The then chairman of the federation, Paul McKeever - who died suddenly last week - wrote to his colleagues in the West Midlands urging them to withdraw the campaign as a matter of urgency.

"We feel some of the dialogue between the Police Federation of England and Wales and government has become too personal and unhelpful," he wrote.

"This is why we have refocused everything we do towards positive engagement with politicians; only by doing this can we possibly hope to influence the important decision making processes."

His final warning was that, by making matters personal, the three federations would compromise "the very people's interests we are supposed to look after".

But on the same day Mr McKeever wrote his letter, his colleagues in the West Midlands were already stepping up another highly personal campaign against the local Sutton Coldfield MP, Andrew Mitchell.

Controversial 'shock-jock'

A week earlier, the Cabinet minister was reported in the Sun newspaper to have launched an "F-word" rant at Downing Street police officers who refused to open the gate for him to leave on his bicycle.

Mr Mitchell has always denied swearing at police officers and using the word "pleb", although he did apologise for the words he did use and not treating the police with respect.

The incident was seized upon by the three West Midlands federations.

"We used 'plebgate', if you like, as a vehicle to ensure that our cuts campaign would be featured in the media, which is obviously what we wanted because we wanted our members to see us being successful in our campaign against the cuts," says Mr Hinton.

The West Midlands, Warwickshire and West Mercia Federations had employed the services of Coventry-based PR company Gaunt Brothers.

Its co-founder is the controversial "shock-jock" and former Sun columnist Jon Gaunt, who lost his job as a talk radio presenter in 2008 for calling a London councillor a Nazi.

Members of the three federations demonstrated outside Mr Mitchell's constituency office wearing "PC Pleb" T-shirts.

Embarrassed by PR offensive

The chairman of the West Mercia Federation, Ken McKaill even called for the minister's resignation.

But not everyone was happy with the media strategy.

The Staffordshire Police Federation, the fourth member of the West Midlands sub-region, decided not to join the campaign.

And former deputy chairman of the West Midlands Police Federation and Conservative Party councillor for Cannock Chase Paul Snape, who retired in 2008, says he was embarrassed by the PR offensive.

"As a former officer of the Police Federation, I have got to ask myself why get involved in a fight that doesn't affect the membership of the West Midlands Police Federation anyway?" he says.

"He may be an MP in Birmingham, but the incident took place in London."

In December, Channel 4's Dispatches programme revealed evidence that appeared to call into question elements of the police account of what had happened, including whether any members of the public had witnessed, and been shocked by, what had happened.

Independent review

Mr Hinton says he now regrets "to a degree" the federation's involvement in the story.

"There's a lot that's come out, obviously more recently, that we didn't know about at the time," he told Radio 4's The Report programme.

"Had we been aware of it then, we may have come to a different decision. We may not have used the 'pleb' issue at all."

The chairman-elect of the Police Federation, Steve Williams, also has his doubts about the wisdom of their campaign.

"I think the 20% cuts message was right, I'm not so sure in relation to what happened as a consequence and Mr Mitchell resigning his position," he says.

"It was a matter for the local federations and they made those decisions. It wasn't centrally controlled or conducted. We made our views known and they decided that they wished to continue with the campaign."

The Police Federation is now working on an independent review, which is expected to examine the relationship between the local branches and the national leadership.

But the Andrew Mitchell affair has highlighted serious divisions in the federation about how to voice their opposition to government cuts and its reform of the police.

Listen to The Report on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 24 January at 20:00. You can listen again via the Radio 4 website or The Report download.

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