Fans of P G Wodehouse – of whom I am one – will recall that Bertie Wooster gained the upper hand over the thuggish Spode, leader of the Black Shorts, by uttering the word “Eulalie” – the name of the up-market lingerie shop that Spode secretly ran in London, terrified that if word got out he and his macho followers would be held up to ridicule and contempt by the masses he despised.
You do not need a detailed knowledge of Wodehouse to see how the Coalition can easily resemble the Drones Club on one of its escapades. The Drones Club, of course, frequently found themselves coming into conflict with the long arm of the law, as exemplified by the red-faced bicycle-borne local constable, and that tradition has been continued by Andrew Mitchell, accused of swearing at a Downing Street police officer and calling him a “pleb”, because the officer would not open the gates to allow him to cycle through, but made him wheel his bicycle through the side-gate instead.
It’s that word too far for the Tories. The most extraordinary thing about this whole affair is that Mitchell and his party appear completely relaxed about his swearing at a police officer – a matter that would earn, say, a hoodied youth in South London a trip to the police station and in at least one celebrated case has led to a four-months prison sentence. Mitchell has apparently apologised for this – in much the same way and the same spirit of noblesse oblige that Tuppy Glossop might apologise for knocking a policeman’s helmet off on Boat Race night – and that apology has been accepted. The double standard is obvious – but somehow that is lost.
No, the allegation that is clearly scaring the Tories to the point of involuntary evacuation is that Mitchell may have used the word “pleb”. The tortuous way in which Mitchell has avoided the word is deeply indicative; this morning, asked directly whether he had used the word, he reiterated his desire to be crystal clear and then retreated into obfuscation about not having used the words that had been attributed to him. He could have denied using the word outright; but chose not to.
It’s a significant moment. It illustrates just how scared the Tories are of the accusation that they are out-of-touch toffs. The most privileged Cabinet in recent political history is desperate to present itself as a cabinet of ordinary guys, even as they enact measure after measure that reduces the living standards of the poorest and most vulnerable in society while enriching their own friends in the city, in the private healthcare industry, or in the media. This is a Government of men enacting class politics in its rawest form, but desperate not to be found out for doing so.
The depth of the Tories’ fear of this word reveals their vulnerability and expresses eloquently their own view of where their weakness lies. “Pleb” looks increasingly like the Conservative Party’s “Eulalie” and that is why the Mitchell incident is has acquired a significance it would otherwise lack.