For a few weeks he was the Haughty Tory Toff, then for two years he was the unfortunate (if largely unsympathised with) victim of police corruption.
But what, now, do we make of Andrew Mitchell?
The truth is, in the two years since Michael Crick unearthed the CCTV footage which sowed more than a seed of doubt on the police version of events, no facts have changed. The libel judgment tells us nothing we didn’t know already. PC Toby Rowland insists that Mitchell called him a pleb, Mitchell insists that he didn’t, and only those two people know the truth.
Make no mistake, if a defendant were on a criminal trial based on the evidence held against Mitchell, a not guilty verdict would be a certainty. Indeed, the CPS would never dream of running a case on such flimsy evidence, with a “beyond reasonable doubt” verdict necessary to secure a conviction.
However, civil trials like this are decided on “balance of probability”. So Mr Justice Mitting simply had to make his best guess, based on the evidence, and he decided that Rowland’s version of events was the more likely to be true.
As noted in Adam Tudor’s interesting Times article on the morning of the verdict, this was the first judgment since the abolition of jury trials for defamation cases. It was on my own jury service ten years ago, that I realised Joe Public struggles to distinguish between the above two standards of proof. So the average voter will likely take all of this as another resounding affirmation of Tory MPs’ self-importance.
And in my view, they’ll be right to do so, even if they have reached that view for entirely for the wrong reason.
The result came as a surprise to many. The word around the court was that Mitchell’s lawyers were very confident, and in the political media, it was pretty much the same feeling. Certainly one senior political commentator I spoke to last year, firmly believed the whole thing to be a police stitch-up, revenge for the Tory police cuts, for which any senior Minister would do, but it was Mitchell that gave them the opportunity.
And given the evidence of police corruption, I was initially surprised by the verdict too, although on reflection, the arguments on both sides were very finely balanced. The Judge had a terribly difficult decision to reach, based on little more evidence than one man’s word against another.
So under the circumstances, and given that the burden of proof is on the Defendant in defamation trials (not that that makes much difference in “balance of probability” cases), some will consider Mitchell unfortunate to have lost.
Indeed, even if he did use the term ‘pleb’, many will think he was rather unfortunate to lose his job in the first place. After all, I’m sure Justice Mitting won’t have to resign for his extraordinary, and rather more demeaning summary of Rowlands’ character, which he cited as a key reason for finding in the PC’s favour!
But despite this, it’s much harder to sympathise with Mitchell, than it was a couple of years ago. Not because I agree with the verdict particularly, but because I think his decision to pursue the case through the courts at all, was a display of hubris.
Let’s not pretend there was a huge amount riding on the outcome of this case. There wasn’t. Sure, Mitchell had lost a top Government job, perhaps unfairly, and wanting to clear his name was, of course, understandable. But the financial loss he’d suffered was a drop in the ocean of his wealth, and he didn’t need to save his career – the doubt cast on the police’s conduct had already restored his reputation sufficiently that another top job was only a year or two away.
Mitchell sued because he could afford to risk a few million quid on a 50/50 case. He used his wealth and privilege to place Mr Justice Mitting in a very difficult position, having to preside over a case where the truth was no more ascertainable than if the feuding pair had tossed a coin in a locked room and later disputed how it fell.
No fee paying person of moderate means could have afforded to pursue such a case, so for a wealthy MP to do so in any circumstances would reflect badly. To do so in circumstances where his Government is further restricting access to justice for the common man, in the form of yet more legal aid cuts, is worse still.
He has reinforced the sterotype of the superior Tory not by calling PC Rowland a pleb, which he may very well not have done, but by trying to access a tier of justice that is simply not available for people who aren’t very rich.
If Mitchell’s career deserves to suffer, it’s not because he lost the case, but because he brought it.