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Class wars: 'Gate-gate' scandal swamps UK PM David Cameron

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images file

British minister Andrew Mitchell, who reportedly insulted police officers after they stopped him from cycling out of the main gate down the street from the prime minister's official residence, arrives at a government meeting in May.

LONDON - We’ve had Watergate, Irangate and even Weinergate.

And now, in London, there’s a new hot-potato controversy that double-dips nicely the neat scandal-enhancing suffix “gate.”

It’s called “Gate-gate.”

The first gate in question sits at the end of Downing Street, home to generations of British prime ministers, and in recent years  -- in a nod to those who would destroy us -- a fortified enclave.  It is guarded around-the-clock by heavily armed police, cameras, barriers -- and that big, black, forbidding iron gate.

Now this particular ballyhoo-gate involves a high ranking senior member of the British government, Andrew Mitchell, who wanted to ride his bike through the aforementioned main gate and, when he was refused and told to use the pedestrian exit,  apparently unleashed a tirade of four-letter abuse at the cops who are there to protect him.

“Best you learn your f***ing place,” he reportedly said in anger.  “You don’t run this f***ing government.”

But it gets worse.  Much worse.

Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA

Andrew Mitchell speaks to the media in London on Monday.

Mitchell allegedly also called the police officers “plebs.”  What?

For those of us for whom Latin is a forgotten language, the plebs (Latin: plebes) of Ancient Rome were the middle-class of society – free people, skilled artisans, farmers.

But in the intervening centuries the word in Great Britain became something of an insult, suggesting the person in question was common, ignorant and – importantly – of a lower order.

It’s an old-fashioned word these days – not much used by the common people to whom it refers, and seldom heard outside of a certain privileged world.

Now you only have to watch "Downton Abbey" -- the popular TV drama starring overdressed and underworked aristos and their forelock-tugging salt-of-the-earth servants -- to know about the class divide in the United Kingdom.  And if you think it’s as dead as Latin, read on.

Enter into this upstairs-downstairs world of ours the quaintly titled Government Chief Whip Mitchell.

He’s an important guy in government.  Some of his critics call him self-important.  He has an office and official residence in Downing Street.   His job -- as the title suggests -- is to be the prime minister’s enforcer, making sure Conservative legislators toe the party line in parliament and outside.

It’s a tough job and one for which Mitchell seems well suited.  He is an alumnus of the elite fee-paying Rugby School, a reputedly tough place that gave its name to the sport and where his disciplinarian ways reportedly earned him the nickname of “Thrasher.”

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Clearly Mitchell seems not the sort to take any nonsense from the “lower orders” after a bad day at the office. Which is just what happened last week as he approached that now famous locked and guarded main gate.

The essence of every “gate” scandal is that the event has far greater consequences than the perpetrator ever imagines as they commit the deed.  It is the stone rolling down the hill before it becomes the avalanche. Gate-gate is no exception.

The furor that Mitchell provoked has reached national level -- and it’s still making front page news.

The day after the outburst, Prime Minister Cameron traveled upcountry to the city of Manchester to pay his respects to the families of two unarmed, female police officers gunned down in cold blood. That evening he had to reprimand his chief whip for showing disrespect to the police.

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Then there’s a question of who is telling the truth. The police officers who suffered Mitchell’s tongue-lashing – members of the elite Diplomatic Protection Group – wrote down in their notebooks what had been said to them. They knew to expect more trouble.

But Mitchell disputes their version of the truth.  Not that he may have used the f-word, as they claim.  But he denies calling them “plebs,” which would – it seems – be very rude indeed.

(The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday published what it said was a log of the exchange as recorded by the officers involved)

So either we can’t rely on the hand-picked cops chosen to guard our most important people – or we can’t trust the prime minister’s right-hand man. The police say, quite correctly, that it’s a question of integrity.

Then there’s the politics of it, as the government struggles in second place in the opinion polls. 

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Cameron has long tried to shake off the taunt of privilege that haunts him and his closest supporters  -- a barb that implies they are out of touch with ordinary folk.  That’s tricky for a politician who wants to win elections (ask Mitt Romney).

So “Dave” Cameron has sought to convince the voters they are as ordinary as you and me.  But not, of course, plebs. He has Mitchell to thank for reinforcing an image he has tried so hard to shake off. 

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For his part, Mitchell has, eventually, been suitably contrite.  He has apologized to the offended officers more than once, without ever telling us exactly what he did say.

“I didn’t show the police the amount of respect I should have done,” he said Monday, before adding  “I hope very much we can draw a line under this.”

A view for sure shared by Cameron and his advisors.

The prime minister is toughing it out and saying Mitchell will not lose his job.  But that’s what beleaguered prime ministers always say.

In the end -- if the cops turn out to be telling the truth -- this particular “gate” may deliver its own last word.  As in:  “Make sure the gate doesn’t bang you in the … on the way out.”

And the police -- whom Mitchell admits he abused -- will take satisfaction in being the ones holding it open for him.

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