This article titled “Andrew Mitchell could have been victim of ‘gigantic conspiracy'” was written by Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent, for The Guardian on Thursday 10th January 2013 12.50 Europe/London
Britain’s top civil servant believes Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip unseated by the “plebgate” row, could have been the victim of a “gigantic conspiracy” involving members of the diplomatic protection group that guards Downing Street.
But Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, said he had declined to investigate in full whether allegations against Mitchell were correct amid fears that he could have been guilty of interfering with the work of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). At one point Heywood said he had conducted a “little review”.
He gave his assessment of Mitchell’s confrontation with armed officers in Downing Street last September during an hour-long appearance before MPs on the commons public administration committee, who expressed astonishment at his light investigation.
Friends of Mitchell said of Heywood’s performance: “No 10 did not cover themselves in glory.” Sources on the committee indicated they will publish a report next week into Heywood’s role which is expected to be unfavourable about him.
Tory MPs were surprised at what was described as a laidback approach by Heywood last September at a time when he thought Mitchell could have been the victim of a “gigantic conspiracy”. He used that phrase – the sort of dramatic words rarely used by senior Whitehall officials – when the backbench Tory MP Charlie Elphicke asked whether nobody in Downing Street had thought last September of the possibility that police were guilty of a “massive fabrication”.
Heywood replied: “We accepted there were unanswered questions including the possibility of a gigantic conspiracy or a small conspiracy. Those were unanswered questions. But we decided, on balance, to let matters rest as they were, decide to stick by Andrew Mitchell, keep him in post and move on.”
The cabinet secretary was asked by David Cameron last September to carry out a brief inquiry after an off duty police officer sent an email to John Randall, the deputy chief whip, which corroborated the official police log of the incident.
The email and the log said that Mitchell swore at police and called them “fucking plebs” when they declined to allow him to cycle through the Downing Street security gates on the evening of 19 September. They also claimed that the incident was witnessed by members of the public.
The accounts were called into question when Channel 4 News broadcast CCTV footage of the incident last month. This showed that only one member of the public stood at the gates at the time of the incident. It also emerged that the off duty officer who sent the email, a member of the diplomatic protection group, had claimed in the communication to be a member of the public despite being a member of the diplomatic protection group.
Heywood said that as part of his “little review” he examined the CCTV footage and concluded that the email was unreliable. He also said that he was “mildly suspicious” when the sender of the email declined to meet him and insisted that he would only meet Randall.
The cabinet secretary said it was impossible to judge from the CCTV footage, which has no sound, whether Mitchell had called the police “plebs”. But MPs on the committee reacted with incredulity when Heywood said he could not remember whether a note by the prime minister’s principal private secretary, who interviewed the officers on duty, had contained the word pleb.
Bernard Jenkin, the Tory chair of the committee, asked: “Did the principal private secretary’s note use the word pleb?”
Heywood replied: “I can’t recall to be honest.”
After bursting into laughter, Jenkin said: “So there is a record in No 10 of a conversation with a police officer immediately after the incident that goes absolutely to the heart of the controversy and you cannot remember whether the word pleb is in that note.”
Heywood said: “I can’t remember whether it is specifically worded.”
Jenkin said: “Because it wasn’t in your remit.”
Heywood said: “No it wasn’t in my remit. No. Absolutely not in my remit. So there is the issue about whether the word pleb had been used. The police took one version of events and Andrew Mitchell has always maintained he never used that word. The prime minister takes that.”
MPs were also surprised when Heywood said his only role was to examine the email and that he had not cross-checked the official police log against the CCTV footage. The log was published by the Daily Telegraph on 24 September, three days after the Sun broke the story and four days after the email was sent to the deputy chief whip.
Heywood said: “I haven’t attempted to assess the veracity of the police account against the CCTV footage. That is not what I have attempted to look at.”
Jenkin said: “Which is what we are very concerned about if you think that wasn’t in your remit.”
Heywood replied: “It clearly wouldn’t have been appropriate to ask the cabinet secretary to start investigating the veracity of the police logs. That is a matter for the IPCC not the cabinet secretary.”
The appearance by Heywood is likely to raise questions about the Downing Street operation. At one point he denied a report in the Independent last month that Cameron decided not to press the issue with the Metropolitan police for fear that it would “poison relations with the elite group of policemen who guard senior politicians”.
Greg Mulholland, the Liberal Democrat MP, asked Heywood: “Is that true?”
Heywood said: “I don’t think that was a consideration at all, to be honest. I can’t comment on that specific report because I don’t think I have read it. But if it said what you have just said, it wasn’t a consideration.”
This suggests that Heywood did not attend meetings in Downing Street where the Cameron team assessed their strategy in the final days before Mitchell’s resignation. It was at those meetings that Cameron’s advisers decided that the only way to save Mitchell was to accuse the police of lying. It was decided that would be politically impossible.
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