Remember the launch of Labour’s manifesto in 2001? No? Ok, well if I say ‘do you remember John Prescott thumping the bloke with a mullet hair cut?’ and possibly ‘do you remember Sharon Storer, the woman who took Tony Blair to task outside a Birmingham hospital?’ you might recall it better.
But there was a third mishap that day, of the three probably the least remembered, but at the time the one TB was most concerned about, namely then Home Secretary Jack Straw being slow-handclapped by the Police Federation. Not for the first time, TB said ‘if there is one group of people you don’t want offside during an election, it’s the cops.’
That thought came to mind as Fiona and I were leaving the Olympic Park during the Paralympics, and a uniformed on-duty machine-gun-toting police officer came up to me and said ‘can I ask you to do me a favour?’ Of course, I said, thinking he might want a book for his Mum, a ticket for a Burnley match when we next play in London, or a speaker for a cops’ night out. He leaned towards me and said ‘please, please, do whatever you can to get these f—ing c—s out.’
We had a neighbour’s teenage children with us and they, along with several other people in the immediate vicinity, were taken aback, as was I. It is not uncommon for strangers to come up to me and talk politics, and in recent weeks I have found teachers in particular wanting to let off steam about the government.
But this was real venom. There were two main reasons he gave. The first was pensions, and the feeling that the government’s planned reforms are unfair and will seriously impact on the standard of living of public servants. The second was that the Prime Minister had visited earlier in the week, and he and others charged with looking after him had been struck by an arrogance they had not detected from watching him on TV. It was a charge backed up by colleagues who had spent more time with the PM than this one chance assignment.
So we chatted away, and others joined in before the police officer decided he had made his point, said thanks for listening and headed off.
And now, courtesy of The Sun, we hear of a rather unpleasant encounter between government chief whip Andrew Mitchell and police guarding Downing Street. My experience of the many cops in and around Number 10 was that if you were nice to them, they were nice to you. As a result, it was usually possible to park where you shouldn’t, get tipped off if there were media hanging around you wanted to avoid, and get let in when you’d forgotten a pass, including via entrances not normally used.
It would appear that Mr Mitchell, who to his credit prefers his bike to a chauffeur driven government car, was prevented from cycling out through the main gates, the police insisting he go out as a pedestrian through the side gate. He disputes calling them ‘plebs’ but does not dispute the loss of temper and the nature of a discussion suggesting that they should know their place.
The chief whip requires good politics as well as robustness. This suggests more of the latter than the former. He has reportedly been given a dressing down by the PM and is going to make a face to face apology to the officer who bore the brunt of his outburst.
But the damage is done, and in their own quiet way, the police are likely to exact a price. The man in the Olympic Park was not a lone voice, but one of many feeling undervalued, looked down upon rather than seen as a member of the team. ‘All in this together?’ Perhaps not. If there is one group of people you don’t want offside during an election, it’s the cops, or the teachers, or the nurses, or the doctors, or the public. Every time the government alienates someone working for them, the ripples fan out, and eventually they meet other ripples, which become a flood.