Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 election

Plebiscite – Portillo’s Misspeech

Plebgate is the gate that keeps giving. Channel 4 seem to have proved that there was not enough time for the alleged exchange to have taken place and the ex Chief Whip claims he never used the word “pleb”.

But initially the story seemed to have legs, because I suspect most of us thought the exchange was possible – which is possibly why the story seemed to be so rapidly corroborated. 

But last night we got a new twist:

In a live discussion on the BBC’s This Week [BBC1 17 October 2013], Mr Portillo revealed: “I have heard him use that word in private conversation – the pleb word, I mean.”

Pressed on the This Week programme on Thursday about whether he had heard Mr Mitchell use the word, Mr Portillo said: “I think I did, but not in a bad context.

“Some policeman thought: ‘Ah, that’s a word that people will believe that Andrew Mitchell might have used.’

“But he wouldn’t have used it in that context.”

BBC News Website 18 October 2013 Portillo ‘misspeaks’ on Mitchell’s use of the word ‘pleb’

It’s the “not in a bad context” that intrigued me.  What I wonder is “a good context”? At the time of the initial story I thought (stereotypically), “Oh, yes he had been in Downing Street talking about issues facing the Government and it is quite possible that a Conservative Chief Whip in talking dismissively about some group would use the word ‘pleb’. Therefore having just been using it within Downing Street, it was in Andrew Mitchell’s mind when the police irritated him – and out it popped!”

What I never got my mind around is what group he would have been referring to when he (hypothetically) used the word ‘pleb’. We might expect that a Conservative would have been referring to “the lower orders” or some group that had irritated the Government – possibly even the Police Federation. But we are talking about a Conservative Chief Whip, so “the plebs” could have been Conservative Backbenchers – like Messrs Rees-Mogg and Bone! We will never know – unless Portillo is willing to be more forth-coming. Perhaps one of the above is Portillo’s “bad context” and the other is Portillo’s “good context” – but which is which?

It looks like we are not going to know – at least from Portillo (unless the Rozzers call him in to give evidence to their ever-enlarging investigation). Today (Friday 18 October 2013) :

the former Conservative cabinet minister added: “I seem to have misspoken. I had no right to say that.

“I think I got carried away in the heat of the moment. I did not mean to say it and I want to withdraw it.”

BBC ibid

He “did not mean to say it”, he “had no right to say it”, but does “I seem to have misspoken” mean he spoke something other than the truth or he merely spoke “off-message”. His sofa colleague last night, Diane Abbott, was quite blunt that she had been sacked from the shadow cabinet because of her inability to stay on message – with the clear implication that she believed she had been telling the truth as she saw it.

So, Portillo did you speak something other than the truth or did you just speak “off-message”? I think we accept that Andrew Mitchell did not call the Downing Street policemen “plebs” – but we accept it because we recognise that there was not enough time for the alleged exchange. Last night’s “misspeech” stokes up the belief that Conservatives are quite capable of speaking dismissively of groups that are an irritant to them.

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One thought on “Plebiscite – Portillo’s Misspeech

  1. The end of this story?;

    27 November 2014

    Former government chief whip Andrew Mitchell loses his High Court libel action. Mr Mitchell had sued News Group Newspapers over the story in the Sun in 2012 which claimed he called PC Toby Rowland a “pleb”. Mr Mitchell acknowledged that he had used bad language but maintained he had not used that word. Delivering his ruling, Mr Justice Mitting said he was satisfied that the MP did say the word “pleb”
    BBC News Website 27 November 2014 : ‘Plebgate’ row: Timeline

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