John Woodcock: Whip row shows cracks in coalition

The political spotlight is usually spread around the country during party conference season, but chief whip Andrew Mitchell's run-in with the police officers on the Downing Street gate has ensured attention has remained focused at the heart of Whitehall.

John Woodcock: Whip handling has been 'a comedy of errors'
John Woodcock: Whip handling has been 'a comedy of errors'

Members of team Cameron who aspire one day to escape the bunker for a more lucrative job managing crises in the private sector had better hope that 'gate-gate' - as it has inevitably been termed - fades pretty quickly from collective memory.

They may be disappointed. Far from being forgotten, the row is more likely to find its way into textbooks as an example of how badly things can go wrong if you fail to get a grip from the outset.

The basic facts were hard enough to handle: a senior government figure abusing officers charged with protecting the Prime Minister while, it later transpired, on his way to a Tory dinner at the Carlton Club. Add to that the alleged use of the word 'pleb' - a single syllable immediately evoking one of the Tories' greatest vulnerabilities of appearing disdainful of those outside their closed, privileged circle.

But the comedy of errors in handling the issue from the point it broke will be alarming for the troops on the government benches already questioning the political direction of the men in the middle. Five days on, the story has drawn in figures such as the Metropolitan Police commissioner as it morphed from 'Top Tory is angry idiot' to something dangerously close to 'Top Tory accuses respected officers of fabricating evidence'.

Yet the sight of Liberal Democrat members of the government queuing up to stir a pot containing their fellow minister may be even more worrying for those who want to see the coalition remain credible.

Nick Clegg may try to reassure David Cameron such things are inevitable in the party conference bubble.

But the public does not make adjustments for the context in which the speaker is laying into someone he pledged to work with for the good of the country. It sees a divided government in disarray, and that is the worst tag of all with which to get stuck.


John Woodcock is Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, and a former spokesman for ex-prime minister Gordon Brown

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