LONDON—A British Cabinet minister has apologized for an outburst in which he reportedly called police officersplebs“—a derogatory term for the working class that has reinforced impressions of government elitism.

Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell said Monday he didn’t show the police the amount of respect he should have when an officer asked him to get off his bicycle to pass through the gates of Downing Street.

However, he insists he didn’t use the words attributed to him.

According to press reports, Mitchell repeatedly used a profanity and told officers they were “(expletive) plebs.”

Opposition politicians say Mitchell should resign if he uttered the word “plebs.”

The controversy is an unfortunate distraction for a Conservative-led government implementing a big austerity program, that includes cutting benefits and capping pay.