Andrew Mitchell, Chief Whip to the Government, has admitted showing “insufficient respect” to two police officers who refused to allow him to leave through the main Downing Street gates on his bicycle last month. He has, however, insisted that his swearing was not directed at the police officers and that he was merely “venting his frustration after a long day”. He has also denied calling the police officers “plebs”, although this is at odds with the official police log of the confrontation and he has singularly failed to state on record his case as to what he did say.
In the wake of the tragic shootings of two policewomen in Manchester the week before, the verbal abuse directed at the police officers, one a woman, has struck a chord. The public perception of Mr Mitchell and the Government as a whole has suffered as a direct result of his actions. Mr Mitchell vehemently denies using the word “pleb” but surely it begs the question of why the police would invent such a story? And “pleb” is hardly a commonplace word bandied around on a regular basis down at your local police station. Obviously no light can be shed on the probability of this being Mr Mitchell’s response by the Evening Standard’s report this week that he prefers his coffee to be brought to him in a mug bearing his former Government title of “Secretary of State for International Development” or by a survey by The Sun indicating that less than 10% of those asked believe Mr Mitchell’s denial.
Leaving aside his position as a prominent public figure (and therefore one of whom you could theoretically expect higher standards of deportment), what would you do if you discovered that one of your employees had been similarly abusive towards a police officer?
The answer is, as always, not clear cut. Would such an action be sufficient to warrant dismissal? Mr Mitchell was not arrested although apparently he was threatened with it by the police officers involved. Arguably his behaviour could constitute misconduct or a breakdown in trust and confidence in the employment relationship. His actions have certainly brought his employer into disrepute. With sufficient evidence, both of these are valid grounds for a fair dismissal.
Were there any mitigating factors involved? There was no suggestion that the police officers were guilty of anything more provocative than telling Mr Mitchell that he could not do what he wanted, though this is perhaps a new experience for him. He claimed that his actions came after a “long and frustrating day”. It has since emerged that this included lunch at the Cinnamon Club, widely billed as “the UK’s poshest curry house”, though despite the gloatings of the tabloids, that does not necessarily mean that the day was without its difficulties.
Has Mr Mitchell shown any remorse for his actions? He has apologised to the police officers involved and has also made a stumbling public apology. However, it is now understood that Mr Mitchell tried to cycle through the main gates again the very next morning. This does not show a man full of remorse for his actions.
All things considered, such behaviour by an employee could at the very least warrant a formal written warning, and may even justify dismissal. Mr Mitchell may consider himself lucky to survive to the next re-shuffle.