Plebgate: a storm in a Westminster teacup?

Daniel Finkelstein

Inside Westminster everyone agrees that the Andrew Mitchell issue is a nightmare for the Conservatives. Is this correct?

I do have my own views on this, but let me try instead just some cool voter analysis.

Well, it is certainly a nuisance. It is a distraction for the leadership, it depresses morale in the Commons, it undermines the whips’ office and, because the Westminster lobby (who own the story) regard it as a huge political issue, it makes the tone of coverage worse. It further damages an already bad relationship with the police.

And any story that makes the Prime Minister look as if he isn’t in control of the situation is a bad story.

But beyond that?

Well, first things first. Voters don’t know who Andrew Mitchell is. And they don’t know what a chief whip does.

They also don’t follow this sort of story. They may have noticed it (although my understanding is that recall in focus groups was almost zero) but they certainly won’t be wondering what happened.

There are three issues still running, so let’s look at each of them. Assuming that voters recall it, the use of the word “pleb” is only more of a problem than swearing if it is commonly understood to have class connotations. It is by no means certain that people have a clear understanding of the word pleb.

The second question is whether the police are being accused of lying. Voters do not unquestioningly believe the police.

And finally, while people don’t believe in swearing at the police, and always think politicians should resign, voters are strongly disinclined to believe in media storms (if you can believe in a storm, but you know what I mean). They will blame the media for the whole saga as much as Mitchell and the police and will regard the whole thing as a whole bunch of people in Westminster entertaining themselves on an irrelevant issue.

When looking at the issue purely in terms of public opinion, David Cameron can ride this one out.

Daniel Finkelstein is chief leader writer and a columnist for The Times. Read his latest column on Jimmy Savile and celebrity power and contact him on Twitter @Dannythefink

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