UK's Cameron backs minister in row over "pleb" swipe at police

Mon Sep 24, 2012 12:58pm EDT

Related Topics

* UK minister accused of calling police "plebs" and "morons"

* "Arrogant posh boy" jibe hurts party in class-obsessed UK

* Conservatives lag in polls, stick with unpopular austerity

By Peter Griffiths

LONDON, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Britain's David Cameron backed a senior minister accused of ranting at policemen in public and calling them "plebs", an old-fashioned insult laden with snobbery that has undermined his party's attempts to shake off its privileged image.

The tirade outside the prime minister's Downing Street office by Andrew Mitchell has embarrassed a Conservative party that is trailing in the polls and struggling to shore up its support at a time of recession, tax increases and spending cuts.

While reports that Mitchell called the officers "morons" were embarrassing, more damaging was the report that he used the word "pleb", a term that is rarely used by a middle or working class person but is soaked in upper class condescension.

The row played into the hands of Conservative critics who think Cameron's centre-right party is run by a rich, lofty group whose policies do little for the majority of voters feeling the pressure of its austerity policies.

Many senior Conservatives are millionaires, educated at Britain's top fee-paying schools and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Rivals mock them as out-of-touch "toffs", the sort of derogatory term that is politically toxic in class-obsessed Britain. A Conservative politician described Cameron and finance minister George Osborne as "arrogant posh boys" in April.

Cameron's spokesman said on Monday it was time to draw a line under the affair after Mitchell apologised again to police, even while denying using the words attributed to him.

"He has acknowledged that that behaviour was unacceptable and the apology has been accepted," the spokesman said. He would not be drawn on Mitchell's choice of words or whether he was accusing the police of not telling the truth.

"Pleb" is derived from a Latin word denoting people outside the aristocratic class in ancient Rome, for example shopkeepers, skilled or unskilled workers and farmers.

"It is old-fashioned language, it is private language. In public it is pretty awful," Peter York, the author and social commentator, told Reuters. "You certainly wouldn't expect any politician to utter it in a remotely public place."

A leaked police report in the top selling Sun newspaper on Monday said Mitchell had lost his temper when police officers refused to open the main Downing Street gates to allow him to cycle through last Wednesday evening.

BADLY TIMED TIRADE

When they asked him to use a pedestrian gate, the report said Mitchell erupted: "Best you learn your fucking place. You don't run this fucking government. You're fucking plebs."

The timing could not have been worse, coming a day after two unarmed policewomen were killed in a gun and grenade attack in Manchester, northern England.

The Conservatives, who have run Britain in a coalition since 2010, are behind the opposition Labour Party before a 2015 election and the Mitchell row could cut further into their public support if it lingers, analysts said.

"They have been remarkably unsuccessful at killing this story," said John Curtice, politics professor at Strathclyde University in Scotland. "That's certainly a problem."

Mitchell, 56, was educated at the prestigious Rugby School, home of one of the most famous literary bullies, Flashman, in the 19th-century novel "Tom Brown's Schooldays" by Thomas Hughes, an Oxford graduate.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, who also went to Oxford, compared Cameron to Flashman last year for his behaviour in parliament.

Mitchell went on to Cambridge University and served in the British Army before joining the Lazard investment bank and working for a management consultancy. Cameron gave him the job of "chief whip", or party enforcer, earlier this month.

Mitchell said he "did not use the words that have been attributed to me", but repeatedly refused to confirm what he did say during an incident dubbed "Gate-gate" by wags on Twitter.

"It had been the end of a long and extremely frustrating day - not that that is any excuse at all for what happened," Mitchell told reporters in the rain outside his office near Downing Street. "I didn't show the police the amount of respect I should have done."

Labour and police groups called for an inquiry into the events at Downing Street.

Although still unconfirmed, the bad language has fed into a perceptions the Conservatives have not shed the "Nasty Party" tag that dogged them under Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the 1980s and 1990s. Cameron has attempted to soften their policies in areas like gay rights and support for the poor.

"There is this perception that ... they are posh, rich people who are out of touch with the lives of ordinary people," said Wyn Grant, politics professor at Warwick University.

"But if the government stands firm on this, it may simply just go away."

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