By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - British lawmakers condemned on Sunday the conduct of police officers involved in a bizarre scandal that forced a cabinet minister to resign after being accused of calling a policeman a "pleb".
The scandal, which erupted in September 2012, began as a controversy over class prejudice in Prime Minister David Cameron's ruling Conservative Party but later turned into a public relations nightmare for the police.
At issue is whether police officers framed the Conservative minister, Andrew Mitchell, and made misleading comments to media to force his resignation, against a backdrop of government cuts in police budgets that had angered many in the rank and file.
"This matter has been hugely damaging to the public's perception of the reputation of the police officers involved ... and the force itself," said opposition Labour Party lawmaker Keith Vaz, who chairs parliament's Home Affairs Committee.
"The narrative of what we have seen could rival any great work of fiction. At every point and at every level, instead of being transparent, we have uncovered a process that obstructs the truth. If this can happen to a cabinet minister, what hope is there for anyone else?" Vaz said.
The committee's report criticized three particular officers who played a role in the saga but also the police chain of command for failing to hold them to account.
In light of the committee's findings, the Independent Police Complaints Commission said it would conduct its own investigation into the three officers, who could face serious disciplinary action.
The story began when Mitchell, then "Chief Whip" responsible for keeping discipline in the parliamentary Conservative Party, had a brief altercation with a policeman as he tried to leave Cameron's office in Downing Street on his bicycle.
The officer refused to open the gates for Mitchell who police said then called the man a "pleb", an old-fashioned insult laden with upper class condescension.
He has always denied using the word and evidence later came to light suggesting Mitchell may have been framed. The incident is now the subject of a police investigation codenamed "Operation Alice".
True or false, the allegation against Mitchell was explosive in the context of Britain's class-sensitive politics, where critics often accuse the Conservative-led government of being full of privileged men out of touch with ordinary people.
The Home Affairs Committee has not delved into the original incident, leaving that to Operation Alice, but has investigated events that took place three weeks later involving Mitchell and a separate group of police officers.
Mitchell was still clinging onto his job amid a huge media uproar when three members of the Police Federation, the staff association for police officers, went to meet him at his constituency office to discuss the "pleb" incident.
The three officers emerged from the meeting to tell the assembled media that Mitchell had "refused to elaborate" and should therefore resign. The pressure on Mitchell became irresistible and seven days later he quit the cabinet.
But it later emerged that the three officers had given the media an inaccurate account of what was said during their meeting with Mitchell.
This caused a new furor and prompted the Home Affairs Committee to conduct its own investigation and issue Sunday's damning report.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)