It’s now about police v politicians

A dust storm is blowing up over the riots but not entirely along conventional party lines. It’s much more like a stand-off between the police and politicians. With the police taking a second political battering in almost as many weeks, you’d have thought they’d be bound to emerge as losers. They still might, if the politicians have useful answers. But have they?

ConservativeHome does a great roundup of reaction to the riots and the recall debate. What strikes me is the gap between rhetoric and reality. The Economist column Bagehot scents political advantage for Cameron.

It is a steelier, more moralistic Mr Cameron who is emerging from the riots, an incarnation that has not been seen since he became prime minister. He is likely to make policies such as welfare reform and elected police commissioners a bigger part of the government’s narrative. Outside 10 Downing Street on August 10th, he described areas of Britain as “not just broken but frankly sick” and called for a “clearer code of values and standards that we expect people to live by”. Liberals, understandably, will worry about all this. But deep down, this is who Mr Cameron really is. After the riots, it might also be what his country wants.

So then what happens to them when you’ve cut their benefit and evicted them from social housing?  In contrast The Times ( surprisingly) has found Cameron to be spinning heavily.

A “spin obsessed” David Cameron pushed for military involvement in the  operation to quell the riots but met stiff resistance from ministers, police  chiefs and the Mayor of London, it was claimed yesterday

I wonder who gave this hostile briefing of the Cobra meeting to the Times? The police? Perish the thought. Whoever it was, it was our boy Hugh Orde who again spoke out, more boldly than ever. His behaviour grows ever more fascinating.

The fact that MPs had come home from holiday was “an irrelevance”….May had “no power whatsoever” to cancel all police leave, Orde said. “The more robust policing tactics you saw were not a function of political interference; they were a function of the numbers being available to allow the chief constables to change their tactics,” he told BBC’s Newsnight

Meanwhile at the coal face or court face, we have a glimpse of reality at last.  A Guardian analysis of more than 150 cases before magistrates courts so far has found the majority of defendants being remanded in custody – even when they have pleaded guilty to relatively minor offences.

People facing court charged with riot-related offences are overwhelmingly young, male and unemployed. Those who are found guilty are receiving prison sentences – or being passed onto higher courts for sentencing. Out of the 1.7m cases heard in magistrates courts last year, only 3.5% were remanded to jail. These figures from this week show a rate of 62%.

Update . This morning Hugh Orde softened his language.

 Mrs May said she had spoken by conference call to all police chiefs on
Wednesday and “ordered that all special constables should be mobilised, all
police leave should be cancelled and the robust tactics used on Tuesday by the
Metropolitan Police adopted by all forces dealing with public disorder”.

But Sir Hugh – who is seen as a leading contender to become the next Met
Police commissioner – told the BBC on Thursday that the subsequent restoration
of calm on Tuesday night had not been down to political intervention.

“The fact that politicians chose to come back [from holiday] is an
irrelevance in terms of the tactics that were by then developing,” he told BBC
Two’s Newsnight.

“The more robust policing tactics you saw were not a function of political
interference; they were a function of the numbers being available to allow the
chief constables to change their tactics.”

On Friday, he insisted there was “no rift” with government and said the home
secretary had been “quite outstanding frankly”.

“She has praised police officers. She understands the complexity of the world
in which we live and I think she very clearly understands that we cannot get it
right all the time,” he said.

“But let’s be very clear on one thing – the vital distinction between
policing and politics remains. The police service will make the tactical
decisions, and quite rightly and robustly, we should and must be held to account
[by politicians].”



Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London