He lavished billions on foreign aid to detoxify the Tories. Now Mr Mitchell's boorish tirade has set them back years
Before he became Chief Whip in the Cabinet reshuffle, Andrew Mitchell was in charge of the Department for International Development
What an irony that the Cabinet minister who has done his utmost to convince the electorate the Tories are decent and caring should have done so much to destroy that carefully constructed image in a moment of unforgivable rudeness to a policeman.
Until a few weeks ago, Andrew Mitchell was in charge of the Department for International Development, whose budget is planned to balloon by nearly 40 per cent to £12 billion a year over the lifetime of this Parliament. This increase is at least partly intended to send the message that the Tories have changed, and David Cameron has ‘detoxified’ the party.
The truth, though, is that a good portion of the aid budget doesn’t have much to do with helping the poor. Last week this paper reported that Mr Mitchell doled out £500 million of aid money last year to consultants, some of whom paid themselves stupendous salaries.
Yesterday’s Mail revealed that hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being used to fund projects that have little or nothing to do with aid in relatively wealthy countries such as Brazil, China, Iceland and Barbados.
So I take with a bucketful of salt the notion that this Government really has been agonising about the fate of the poor in the Third World. Nonetheless, that has been the impression cultivated by Mr
Cameron and Andrew Mitchell, a pretty hard-boiled Tory Right-winger who asked us to believe that the milk of human kindness was miraculously coursing through his veins.
What was in some measure a carefully contrived PR stunt has now been undermined by Mr Mitchell’s crude and threatening invective towards a policeman in Downing Street. If you were looking around for someone who corresponded to the public stereotype of a high-handed and arrogant Tory MP, you could do no better than the former Secretary of State for International Development — now clinging onto his new job as chief whip.
Many people will say — unfairly, I believe — that deep down this is what wealthy, public-school educated Tories are really like when you have stripped away the pretence that their hearts bleed for the poor and underprivileged.
David Cameron and Andrew Mitchell have been cultivating the notion that the Government has been agonising about the fate of the poor in the Third World
That is why Mr Mitchell’s outburst has caused his party so much damage — the more so, no doubt, because it happened the day after two female police officers were murdered on duty in Manchester.
There is, in fact, no reason to suppose that Mr Mitchell — who attended Rugby, a leading public school — is a typical representative either of his class or his party. While it is perfectly true that the majority of Tory Cabinet ministers are privately educated, it doesn’t follow that all of them are mannerless and uncouth brutes who like to tear strips off policemen trying to do their job.
Indeed, Mr Mitchell’s boorish behaviour is the antithesis of the gentlemanly conduct that public schools are supposed to inculcate. You shouldn’t be rude to anyone — and especially to those who are trying to serve you. Every member of the officer class knows that. Mr Mitchell should, too, having served briefly as a young lieutenant in the Royal Tank Regiment.
It is unimaginable that another old Rugbeian, the former prime minister Neville Chamberlain, could ever have behaved in such a way, whatever his faults. It is quite hard to imagine any Tory from a privileged background of his generation addressing a policeman in the language Mr Mitchell is alleged by police to have used.
Rude: Hugh Robertson told Olympic staff 'You should damn well known who I am' when they would not let him into the Olympic media centre
Looking at the present generation, there are some other leading Tories who don’t know quite how to behave. The public school-educated Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson recently made an ass of himself when he responded to security staff who would not let him into the Olympic media centre by snorting: ‘You should damn well know who I am.’ Why should we?
But such overbearing behaviour is, I suspect, unusual among the current bunch. Even Mr Cameron’s severest critics would probably not accuse him of bad manners. It seems unlikely he would ever snap at a policeman, though he once cracked a cruel joke about the Tory MP Nadine Dorries in the Commons.
George Osborne may have the self-satisfied face of a Regency buck — amusingly, there is a spoilt and cosseted George Osborne in Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair, set around that time — but I haven’t heard anyone describe him as rude.
As far as his manners are concerned, Andrew Mitchell is probably something of a one-off among Tory members of the Cabinet. In a previous generation he would have been described as a bit of a cad or a bad apple.
So my point is not that the public school-educated Cameron, Osborne and the rest of them are bounders liable to rant at policemen or other public servants. The problem is that Mr Mitchell’s outburst may increase the general perception that the Tory leadership is worryingly out-of-touch — a sort of privileged caste dominated by men with limited experience who are trying to run the country without having much clue what the country is like.