News analysis: Plebgate tests comms structure at Police Federation

As the Plebgate saga rumbles on, the police 'trade union' is negotiating stormy waters as it seeks a permanent head of comms.

Police under scrutiny: Officers were grilled over allegations that they attempted to discredit Andrew Mitchell
Police under scrutiny: Officers were grilled over allegations that they attempted to discredit Andrew Mitchell

The Police Federation represents all policemen and women and is often referred to as a quasi trade union for the police.

There was a telling line in the statement it issued last Monday "on behalf of" three of the police officers at the centre of the Plebgate affair; Chris Jones, Ken MacKaill and Stuart Hinton: "The federation will not be offering facilities further than the above statement."

While the federation has a duty to distribute the officers’ statements, it steered clear of endorsing their contents.

Two days later the officers would be grilled by the Home Affairs committee about suspicions, which they dispute, that they tried to discredit then Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell last year.

The trio, who all come from the West Midlands region of the federation, controversially met with Mitchell last October because his Sutton Coldfield constituency is in their region.

They might have expected to be prepared for the committee by the federation’s comms team, but instead they were advised on its workings by Connect Communications.

"I brought in a third party because I was keen to ensure there was a firewall between the national federation’s position and those regional officers," said the federation’s temporary comms head Chris Webb.

Webb added the firewall was necessary because "I could see there might come a point where you might have to contradict or conflict with what they were going to say or do".

The former Met Police head of news started work on Monday, having been hired on a two-days-a-week basis until the federation recruits a permanent comms chief.

Former head of comms Felicity Ross left last Thursday after 11 months in the role.

She tendered her notice at the beginning of August and is moving to Australia with her husband this month.

It is suggested the three officers went against the advice of the national federation last autumn when they chose to highlight Mitchell’s alleged use of the word "pleb" for a campaign against government cuts.

As the federation’s structure gives its regional wings autonomy from the national body, they were able to engage an outsider, former TalkSport DJ Jon Gaunt, to help them deal with the media.

Mitchell stepped down as chief whip after they called on him to resign when they spoke to the media immediately following the meeting, though he remains an MP.

They claimed he had failed to explain to them what happened on the September day he was alleged to have called police officers manning the Downing Street gates "fucking plebs".

Doubt was later cast on the trio’s version of events by Mitchell’s secret recording of the meeting, in which he admitted using the f-word but denied he used the word "pleb".

In Monday’s statement the officers denied they planned to mislead anyone about the meeting, but apologised for their poor judgement in talking to the media afterwards.

If their words have not placated Mitchell, they may help the federation as it interviews candidates for the head of comms role in the coming weeks, because they show it is imposing central control.

The recruitment process comes as the federation awaits the result of an independent review of its structure, commissioned by its own chairman Steve Williams after he took up the post in January.

Candidates will no doubt be keen to know whether the conclusions will resolve the blurred lines that some believe contributed to the conflicting messages of the past year.

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