Former British minister loses libel case over police 'pleb' row

Andrew Mitchell, Britain's former Conservative Party chief whip, leaves the Royal Courts of Justice with wife Sharon Bennett in London, Nov 27, 2014. Mitchell lost a libel case on Thursday over a newspaper article which said he had insultingly referr
Andrew Mitchell, Britain's former Conservative Party chief whip, leaves the Royal Courts of Justice with wife Sharon Bennett in London, Nov 27, 2014. Mitchell lost a libel case on Thursday over a newspaper article which said he had insultingly referred to police as "plebs". -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - A former minister in Prime Minister David Cameron's government lost a libel case on Thursday over a newspaper article which said he had insultingly referred to police as "plebs".

Andrew Mitchell was forced to quit his ministerial job in the wake of a 2012 confrontation with officers outside Cameron's Downing Street office.

The row has been damaging to Cameron, educated at the elite Eton private school, given the overtones of snobbery to the word as Conservative ministers struggle to counter Labour claims that they are out of touch with ordinary Britons.

Mitchell had admitted swearing, but denied using the word "pleb".

He sued Rupert Murdoch's News Group Newspapers over a story that appeared in the Sun tabloid, but a judge at London's High Court said he believed he had used such language.

Mitchell, who as chief whip was responsible for keeping discipline among MPs in Cameron's Conservative Party, had become angry with police who refused to allow him to cycle his bike through the main gates of Downing Street.

Officers who were not involved leaked the information to the Sun or fabricated evidence about the incident, leading to one being jailed for 12 months and three others being sacked.

After Mitchell sued News Group Newspapers, Toby Rowland, the constable who was involved in the confrontation, announced he would seek damages from the MP for suggesting he had lied.

Mitchell said outside court after the ruling he was bitterly disappointed but added: "This has been a miserable two years and we now need to bring this matter to a close and move on with our lives."

Commentators said he could be facing legal bills of up to £3 million (S$6.1 million) as lawyers for Rowland and News Group Newspapers seek to be reimbursed for their costs.

Rowland told reporters he regretted that the whole incident had ended up in court but was delighted by the ruling.

He said of the episode; "It is particularly saddening that all this happened because I was merely following procedures - I was doing my job without fear or favour."