Plebgate: what does libel ruling mean for Andrew Mitchell?

Judge describes MP's behaviour as 'childish' and says he probably did call police officers 'plebs'

Former cabinet minister and Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell talks to the media after the court ruling.
(Image credit: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty)

A High Court judge has ruled that former chief whip Andrew Mitchell probably did call police officers "plebs" outside Downing Street in September 2012.

The ruling concludes a libel case brought by Mitchell against The Sun, which published a front page story accusing the Tory MP of calling Downing Street police officers "f***ing plebs" in an arrogant tirade. Mitchell admitted swearing when officers refused to allow him to cycle through the main vehicle gates, but he denied using the words attributed to him.

The police officer who made the claim, PC Toby Rowland, then sued Mitchell for accusing him of lying.

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Yesterday, at the Royal Courts of Justice, Mr Justice Mitting described Mitchell's behaviour as "childish" and said the MP's version of events was inconsistent with CCTV footage of the scene.

How did the judge make his decision?

Mr Justice Mitting listened to two weeks of evidence from 26 witnesses and considered volumes of documents about the 15-second exchange. Ultimately, he decided that PC Rowland was not the sort of man "who would have had the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment an account of what a senior politician had said to him in temper". Mitting said Mitchell was not "in the state of mind" to measure his words carefully or remember precisely what they were. He concluded: "For the reasons given I am satisfied at least on the balance of probabilities that Mr Mitchell did speak the words alleged or something so close to them as to amount to the same including the politically toxic word 'pleb'."

What has the ruling cost Mitchell?

The judge ordered Mitchell to pay interim costs of £300,000, but the total bill he faces is not yet known. Estimates in today's newspapers range from £1m to £3m.

What was Mitchell's reaction?

The Tory MP said he was "bitterly disappointed" by the result. "This has been a miserable two years but we now need to bring this matter to a close and move on with our lives," he said in a statement outside court, implying he would not appeal. PC Rowland said he and his family had been through "indescribable pain" and said he was "delighted to hear again my innocence, my reputation and my integrity as a police officer has been recognised". Several commentators agree that the whole scandal could have been avoided if Mitchell had just apologised. "A little common courtesy would have been enough to avert this whole disgraceful episode," says The Times.

What will Mitchell do next?

The judge's ruling is a "devastating blow" to the former chief whip, who had hoped to use a victory in the courts to revive his cabinet career, says The Guardian. Mitchell is "comfy in his Sutton Coldfield seat" with a massive majority, says BBC political correspondent Robin Brant, but he might have no choice but to find a job that pays more than the £67,060 MP salary if he is landed with a multi-million pound bill for costs and damages. Oliver Wright in The Independent says it was Mitchell's "privileged upbringing and temper tantrums" that were his own undoing. "But even his enemies concede Mr Mitchell is clever and talented – and has a genuine passion for development and helping the world's poorest people. That should be where his rehabilitation starts."

Is this the end of plebgate?

The saga has lasted for over two years, with several legal and disciplinary wranglings. PC Keith Wallis, an off-duty officer, was jailed for 12 months earlier this year for falsely claiming to have witnessed the incident as a member of the public. Three other police constables were also sacked for gross misconduct for their roles in leaking information to the press. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is currently carrying out another investigation into the conduct of three Police Federation representatives following a meeting with Mitchell at his Sutton Coldfield constituency office in October 2012 – meaning plebgate is not over just yet.

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