LONDON (Reuters) – British lawmakers condemned today the conduct of police officers involved in a bizarre scandal that forced a cabinet minister to resign after being accused of calling a policeman a “pleb”.
The scandal, which erupted in September 2012, began as a controversy over class prejudice in Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Conservative Party but later turned into a public relations nightmare for the police.
At issue is whether police officers framed the Conservative minister, Andrew Mitchell, and made misleading comments to media to force his resignation, against a backdrop of government cuts in police budgets that had angered many in the rank and file.
“This matter has been hugely damaging to the public’s perception of the reputation of the police officers involved … and the force itself,” said opposition Labour Party lawmaker Keith Vaz, who chairs parliament’s Home Affairs Committee.
“The narrative of what we have seen could rival any great work of fiction.
At every point and at every level, instead of being transparent, we have uncovered a process that obstructs the truth. If this can happen to a cabinet minister, what hope is there for anyone else?” Vaz said.
The committee’s report criticised three particular officers who played a role in the saga but also the police chain of command for failing to hold them to account.
In the light of the committee’s findings, the Independent Police Complaints Commission said it would conduct its own investigation into the three officers, who could face serious disciplinary action.
The story began when Mitchell, then “Chief Whip” responsible for keeping discipline in the parliamentary Conservative Party, had a brief altercation with a policeman as he tried to leave Cameron’s office in Downing Street on his bicycle.
The officer refused to open the gates for Mitchell who police said then called the man a “pleb”, an old-fashioned insult laden with upper class condescension.
He has always denied using the word and evidence later came to light suggesting Mitchell may have been framed.
The incident is now the subject of a police investigation codenamed “Operation Alice”.