* 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 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
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."