Desmond Browne QC, for Toby Rowland, the police officer whom Mitchell is accused of calling a “fucking pleb” and who is co-suing the MP in turn, said many officers had seen “Mr Hyde and not Mr Jekyll”.
“[Mitchell’s] capacity for menace finds its outlet in both a foul temper and foul language,” Browne said at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.
Mitchell, 58, under oath admitted he had a temper and that he used foul language but denied he had used the words attributed to him. “My Lord, I did not say those words. I would never call a policeman a pleb, let alone a fucking pleb,” he said.
In his opening, James Price QC, for Mitchell, said the MP for Sutton Coldfield and his family had been subjected to an extended and vitriolic press campaign as a result of a “web of lies, deceit and indiscipline” by police officers.
He said his client was not a snob but an outstanding cabinet minister for whom the words “pleb” or “learn your fucking place” were not in his vocabulary nor his character.
Price said it may surprise observers that in a case between a cabinet secretary and a police officer it was the latter who would bring “considerable financial muscle”, in the form of the Police Federation which is paying Rowland’s costs. He said the federation had seized on the row for its own political gains.
Before taking the stand, Mitchell sat in front of his counsel as Price told Mr Justice Mitting, who is sitting without a jury, that what the MP was alleged to have said was a “gross caricature of an attitude of mind which has been out of date for decades”.
Price said the detail of the encounter that was leaked to the Sun by a number of officers was “wholly false”. He said: “This web of lies, deceit and indiscipline, and by police officers, led to Mr Mitchell and his family being subjected to an extremely unpleasant, indeed vitriolic, press campaign and a good deal of hostility from the public who believed what they had read in the press.
“It also placed him in a position where he required considerable determination and, above all, confidence in the rightness of his position, to stand by his account of events.”
On 19 September 2012, according to Rowland, Mitchell, having demanded and been denied the right to leave Downing Street on his bicycle via the main gates, lost his temper and told the officer: “Best you learn your fucking place. You don’t run this fucking government. You’re fucking plebs.”
Mitchell is suing the Sun for an article it ran two days later headed “Cabinet Minister: Police are Plebs”, which he alleges falsely accused him of “launching a grossly offensive and arrogant attack” on police officers. The former chief whip denies demanding to be allowed to use the main gates, losing his temper or using the words attributed to him by Rowland.
Describing what happened on the night in question, Mitchell told the judge: “As I turned my bike round, I said under my breath but audibly: ‘I thought you lot were supposed to fucking help us.’”
Mitchell said that immediately Rowland told him that if he swore at him again he would arrest him.
“I was thinking that it was extremely odd that a member of the diplomatic protection group would threaten to arrest one of the three ministers who work in Downing Street. I was also surprised that he said I had sworn at him when I had not,” Mitchell said. “But equally I was aware I had used bad language and you shouldn’t do that in dealings with the police.”
He told the court: “I should not have used bad language, my Lord. I’ve apologised for it and the officer and I’ve apologised to the court. You should not use bad language any time to police officers and I should not have used it.”
He accepted that it was said that a chief whip had to have a mixture of charm and menace, that this was a fair description of him and that he could be abrasive, but said: “I strive not to be abrasive.”
However, he said: “I don’t believe any of my colleagues who knew me well would have believed I would call a police officer a pleb.”
He added: “When there is a media storm of the ferocity which hit me – the extraordinary tsunami of vitriol which descended on my head over a prolonged period of time led by the Sun – it is not surprising that very few people would put their head above the barricade and defend me, although a certain number did.”
Mitchell agreed that he had a temper, but not that he was quick to lose it, and accepted that he used bad language too much. He made a distinction between losing his temper, which he said would have been reliably demonstrated if he had been shouting, and having an “ill temper”, which he had on the night in question.
He accepted the description used by Bob Geldof, well-known for his own use of Anglo-Saxon words, as “no slouch” when it comes to swearing.
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