UK Politics

A PR Lesson Andrew Mitchell Needs to Learn

24 Sep 2012 at 14:56

What on earth did he think he was doing? All Andrew Mitchell achieved this morning by talking to the assembled cameras was to give the story more legs. But perhaps it is wrong to blame Mitchell. After all, he was no doubt doing what he had been advised to do by the so called government PR “experts”. Either those experts were incompetent or they did not have Andrew Mitchell’s best interests at heart. At the moment, I am not sure which is more likely to be true.

What Andrew Mitchell should have done, and done on Sunday, is to sit down for a one on one interview with the likes of Andrew Marr, Tom Brady, or Adam Boulton. It wouldn’t be guaranteed to work, but it would have stood far more chance than this morning’s shambles of a doorstep.

In these circumstances, the rule is if you have nothing new to say, shut the f*** up. Because all you do by repeating your previous words is to keep the story going and give it legs. The fact is that the Sunday papers delivered nothing new. Nor, frankly, did The Sun this morning. The story was starting to struggle to keep going. A big news story breaking elsewhere would have sealed it and Andrew Mitchell would have done a Jeremy Hunt and survived against the odds. But by doing the doorstep statement this morning and then failing to respond to questions, Mitchell has achieved the opposite of that he would no doubt have intended.

Despite having been an MP for 25 years, Andrew Mitchell has always been a little naïve about the ways of the media. He has improved as a media performer, as evidenced by some strong performances on Question Time and Any Questions. But he’s not a media natural. I well remember that in the Davis campaign, Damian Green became the public face of the campaign because Andrew Mitchell’s interviews weren’t cutting the mustard. To his credit, Andrew realised this and accepted it.

To have a chief whip who doesn’t appear on the media is normally what is to be expected. Patrick McLoughlin rarely did. But we are where we are.

What Andrew said to the Police officer was crass and arrogant. Not even his closest friends would defend that. But we still don’t know for a fact exactly what was said. It seems clear that he did swear but it less clear what other words he used. But frankly it hardly matters what the truth is. Everyone believes he used the word ‘pleb’, whether he did or not, and it’s something the left is now able to sue to smear the whole government with. I doubt whether it is even possible to get to the real truth. Labour have called for the Cabinet Secretary to launch an inquiry. Really? Do we really think this is the most important thing in the nation’s politics? Is that really the best use of the Cabinet Secretary’s time? Surely not.

Mitchell has apologised to the officer concerned and he has accepted his apology. That, in any normal turn of events, should be the end of it. But until the two versions of events are reconciled, it won’t be. Dan Hodges has written that he thinks the Police Federation may be overplaying its hand in its desire to pick a fight – any fight – with a government it despises. He may have a point, but that’s not the way the media see it.

Andrew Mitchell’s other big problem now, apart from the question over his survival, is how he can impose discipline on a parliamentary party, when he has been so undisciplined himself. Speaking to several Tory MPs over the last few days, they all say the same thing. And you can guess what it is.

One other comment in passing. Over the weekend I took several calls from lobby journalists all of which were along the same lines. “I gather you and Andrew Mitchell aren’t on speaking terms. Got any dirt to dish?” It is true that Andrew and I didn’t see eye to eye on some aspects of the campaign, but he and I are good friends. I went with him on the trip to Rwanda in 2007 and I have seen at first hand what a brilliant job he did at Dfid. He’s been on my LBC show many times – hardly something he would have done if we hadn’t been on speaking terms. I’ve not said anything about him either on or off the record to any journalist or broadcast station as I didn’t want to become part of the media circus on this. And as a friend I decided that any opinion I offered couldn’t possibly be seen as in any way independent. I have only written this piece to put on record my incredulity at what happened this morning. Judging from other opinion pieces by commentators I respect I am not alone.

I don’t believe Andrew Mitchell deserves to lose his job over this and I don’t think he should resign. If you think about ministers in this government and the last one who survived over doing things which were far worse, it ought to add a sense of perspective.

But Alastair Campbell’s 11 day rule may soon come into play, no doubt aided and abetted by the Labour Party and The Sun – unlikely bedfellows, but there you go.

I don’t know how this will play out in the end, but for Andrew Mitchell’s sake, I’d advise him to stop listening to those who advised him to do what he did this morning. They’re incompetent fools.

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