This week has already seen a political earthquake nothing to do with UKIP or elections. On Wednesday Theresa May addressed the Police Federation annual conference in Bournemouth. Frequently Home Secretaries have received a tough time form the Police Federation: heckling, laughter, slow hand claps and other forms of open scorn have all been inflicted on Labour Home Secretaries.
May a thin, yet matronly figure (though she has no children) with a fondness for conservatively fashionable clothes and designer shoes (a significantly softer, slightly posher Thatcher) might have seemed an unlikely figure to cast fear into the hearts of the frequently macho and confrontational Police Federation. She, however, politely, calmly and assuredly delivered the most devastating critique of policing produced by a Home Secretary in living memory.
Her speech started positively and even anodynely enough. Then, however, she recited the litany of problems to have beset the police in the last 30 years: Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence, Ian Tomlinson, Plebgate. She omitted the issue of the miners strike and the Battle of the Beanfield but included the police use of Stop and Search against black people, the manipulation of the crime statistics, the Met’s Special Demonstration Squad and corruption of the Police Federation itself. She began by stating that the British model of policing by consent was in danger, challenged them to radical change and finished by reminding them that their organisation was created by statute and as such could be changed by parliament. Along the way she also ended government funding for the Federation. She also demanded they accept all the proposed Normington reforms of the Federation: something they promptly (and meekly) proceeded to do.
It is difficult to imagine a Home Secretary or their equivalent let alone a right of centre one in any country deliver the demolition job done by May. There is no doubt that the Tories have been angered by Plebgate but the litany of recent problems for the police seem to have emboldened May to make the attack. The traditional public deference and respect for the police at least in middle and upper working class communities in mainland GB now seems to be significantly diminished. The automatic assumption that the police are on the side of “decent people” (to steal a phrase from the past) has been significantly eroded.
David Walker in the Guardian has noted this as an attack on a public sector unions and that currently the government have no reason to worry about keeping the police on side but that seems to underestimate the gravity of the problem facing the police. Martin Kettle (also in the Guardian) has pointed out that unlike Labour who always feared being labelled as soft on crime, a Conservative reformer could be more radical. The fact that many of those who have suffered from the scandals May pointed to are unlikely to be natural Tories (except plebgate) or always archetypal middle class “decent people” seems relatively unimportant in the current climate of public – police distrust.
There is no doubt Theresa May felt she needed to make this speech as public concern does seem to be significant. However, in doing so she has demonstrated once again that she is a woman of very considerable political steel. With Cameron in the process of dealing with a fairly woeful set of elections and Boris Johnston still more the joker than a pretender to the throne, people have looked for alternative candidates for Tory leader. Michael Gove was at times mentioned but since Ed Milliband is regarded as potentially too geekish it is difficult to take Gove seriously as a leader (difficult enough in other ways as well). As such if the European elections prove even worse than the council elections it might be worth remembering that the Tory’s most successful Prime Minister of the last century had a fondness for designer shoes.