The Mitchell grimace said: 'I am serious, not gloating'
23:45 GMT, 19 December 2012
Mitchell had been subjected to a prolonged frenzy of the media and the political class after having a row with the police at the gates of Downing Street
With a squeeze of the elbow here, a pat of the bottom there, a ‘so pleased for you, old boy, never doubted you for a minute’ and a wink and a crinkle-eyed smile: that was how former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell was greeted by Tory and Lib Dem MPs in the Commons Chamber yesterday.
Just a few weeks ago (though it seems an age), Mr Mitchell left the Cabinet apparently a broken man.
He had been subjected to a prolonged frenzy of the media and the political class after having a row with the police at the gates of Downing Street. It was said that he had used the word ‘plebs’, though he denied that. Class warfare! Mr Mitchell was smouldering toast.
A couple of days after he left Cabinet, he entered the Commons Chamber to listen to whatever that day’s debate was. I remember seeing him as he stood at the far end, quite alone. No one went up to him. He was undoubtedly an untouchable, so far as the parliamentary colleagues went.
Not yesterday. For yesterday, the morning newspapers carried stories that threw doubt on the police’s account of that row in Downing Street. Suddenly there is a chance – slim, but still a chance – that Mr Mitchell will live to fight another day. Yikes, think MPs. Maybe we should have been kinder to him in his hour of need!
Mr Mitchell entered the Chamber yesterday shortly before PMQs. Again, he stood at the far end of the House, opposite the Speaker’s Chair.
Salmon pink tie. A rounded helmet of grey hair. A grimace on his face that said ‘I am not gloating, I am serious’. To maintain that expression while elfin Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith was at the despatch box in a zipped, chocolate-coloured leather jacket and eye-poppingly tight (and short) skirt was an act of remarkable self-control for any red-blooded man, let alone a former minister who may just have seen himself partly vindicated after a lynching.
Miss Smith, by the way, has just become engaged. Many hearts are bruised.
Back to Mr Mitchell. There he stood, slap-bang in the middle of things. A Milton Keynes Tory, Mark Lancaster, a friend of his, chatted to him eagerly.
Then the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, entered via the swing doors just a couple of yards away. Mr Hunt (who knows what it feels like to be engulfed by scandal- hysteria) tapped Mr Mitchell on the right shoulder and shot him a supportive nod.
Next supplicant at the altar: oddly, it was Simon Hughes (Lib Dem, Bermondsey), who at the time of the ‘plebs’ rumpus was critical of Mr Mitchell. Mr Hughes patted Mr Mitchell first in the middle of his back, then at the lower part of his spine. Watch out, Mitch!
Serious: The man reprieved is the man suddenly with lots of friends – particularly if there is a possibility he may return to a position of influence
Mr Mitchell was in part undone, during his crisis, by his then deputy, John Randall. The same Mr Randall was yesterday at the other end of the Chamber, behind the Speaker’s Chair, where he made conversation to one or two MPs. He and Mr Mitchell were in direct sight of one another. It was like something from a spaghetti western. Mr Randall retained his own camp followers. Those who paused to talk to him included Nick Hurd and Greg Barker, both ministers. I looked down a few seconds later to find that Mr Barker had disappeared. Another few seconds passed. Ping! Mr Barker reappeared in the Chamber, but now he was at the other end, standing beside Mr Mitchell. I suppose that is called playing it both ends.
Defence Minister Andrew Robathan sidled up to Mr Mitchell to say something. Few have previously thought them to be close. Young Matt Hancock, a Business Minister, patted Mr Mitchell on both elbows, simultaneously.
The man reprieved is the man suddenly with lots of friends. Particularly if there is a possibility he may return to a position of influence. As PMQs ended, Mr Mitchell walked out of the Chamber slowly, his gait sedate, his air almost proprietorial.