* Senior UK minister admitted swearing at police
* Row fuelled view Cameron's government is elitist
* Opposition say prime minister weakened by affair
By Tim Castle and Michael Holden
LONDON, Oct 19 British minister Andrew Mitchell
resigned on Friday after failing to shake off accusations he
called police "plebs", an insult laden with snobbery that
fuelled perceptions Prime Minister David Cameron's government is
out of touch with voters.
Mitchell, the "Chief Whip" responsible for keeping
discipline among lawmakers in Cameron's Conservative Party,
denied using the offending word but admitted swearing at
officers after being told to get off his bicycle as he left
Downing Street last month.
"Over the last two days it has become clear to me that
whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter I will not be able
to fulfil my duties as we would both wish," he said in a
resignation letter to Cameron.
Cameron, educated at the elite Eton private school, has
struggled to shake off the impression that he and other senior
members of his party come from a rich, privileged background far
removed from the electorate, and the accusations against former
investment banker Mitchell have proved highly damaging.
With the Conservative Party behind in opinion polls, and an
ailing economy struggling to recover from recession, the storm
around Mitchell reinforced an image of a government divorced
from Britons hit by budget-crunching austerity measures.
Mitchell's confrontation at security gates outside Cameron's
office came just days after two unarmed female police officers
were shot dead in the northern city of Manchester, adding to
public disquiet at his reported behaviour.
Police representatives, already upset with the government
over cuts to force budgets and changes to their working
conditions, had demanded Mitchell quit, saying his disagreement
over what had been said was an insult to all officers.
George Young, a veteran Conservative lawmaker who also
attended Eton, was named as the new chief whip.
Mitchell's resignation had been inevitable, said Paul
McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation of England and
Wales, which represents frontline officers.
Cameron had hoped to retain Mitchell who he had only just
moved to the chief whip job in a wide reshuffle of cabinet posts
in September, but had been forced to repeatedly defend him.
"I regret that this has become necessary," Cameron said in a
letter replying to Mitchell. "I wanted you to bring your
organisational skill and energy to the important job of chief
In recent months, the government has been beset by a number
of high-profile mis-steps and policy U-turns after an unpopular
budget. Just this week, Cameron sowed confusion among his own
government by announcing a surprise pledge to curb energy prices
Cameron's handling of the Mitchell affair has given more
ammunition to critics who say his leadership has gone awry, with
the opposition Labour Party saying it had left him looking
"What people will want to know is why, when the entire
country could see that what Andrew Mitchell did was wrong, the
prime minister totally failed to act," said Labour lawmaker
Although Mitchell had apologised for his outburst, the
political row had refused to die down because he refused to
reveal what he actually had said.
"It was probably a misjudgement on Cameron's part not to
encourage him to go straight away. He should probably have seen
this wasn't going to be the kind of thing that could be lived
down," said politics professor Tim Bale from London's Queen Mary
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 soaked in upper-class condescension.
Mitchell addressed the issue in his resignation letter,
giving Cameron his "categorical assurance" that he had not used
the offending words. "I did not, never have and never would call
a police officer a 'pleb' or a 'moron' or used any of the other
pejorative descriptions attributed to me," Mitchell wrote.
"The offending comment and the reason for my apology to the
police was my parting remark, 'I thought you guys were supposed
to f***ing help us'."
Mitchell, a former U.N. peacekeeper, was previously minister
for international development. Cameron had made him chief whip
in the hope of keeping greater check on rebellious Conservative
legislators who want Britain to renegotiate its relationship
with the European Union and recently forced a policy U-turn over
reform of parliament.
However, his job of keeping other legislators in line had
looked increasingly untenable when his own credibility continued
to be undermined.