The Home Secretary endured the humiliation of being heard in deathly silence by police officers yesterday as she defended moves to slash spending on the service.
Theresa May had been braced for catcalls and boos when she appeared before the rank and file officers at the Police Federation annual conference. Instead she was forced to listen as a succession of angry delegates condemned the austerity package – and then was given the silent treatment as she refused to back down.
The encounter marks a low point in the relationship between police and the Government. Ministers have set out plans to cut spending on police by 20 per cent over four years – a move the federation claims will lead to the loss of 20,000 jobs.
Feelings are also running high over moves to cut the complex system of bonuses and overtime payments. Police are banned from striking, but protests later in the year look likely.
Ms May looked on impassively as the federation's chairman, Paul McKeever, warned: "We are careering towards what could be the meltdown of the British police service."
He accused her of failing to defend the police as Government cuts were finalised and of ignoring the advice of experienced officers.
He said: "The policing budget has been cut by almost three times that of the Ministry of Defence. And yet you tell us and the communities we serve that there will be no effect on the delivery of policing. That is sheer nonsense."
Mr McKeever received a standing ovation as he told Ms May: "We have a real concern about the way you operate – we believe you aren't listening."
Among the critics she faced was David Rathband, the constable blinded by the killer Raoul Moat, who asked her via a videolink whether she thought his £35,000 pay packet was too high. Amid loud applause for PC Rathband's comments, Mr McKeever turned to her and asked: "Home Secretary, how do you sleep at night?"
Sarah Adams, from Derbyshire police, said: "Home Secretary, how can you expect police officers and the communities we serve to ever trust you or this Government again?"
An unrepentant Ms May told the 2,000 delegates in Bournemouth: "Not all of you will like some of the decisions I have taken and not all of you will like what I have to say.
"But it is not my job to duck the difficult decisions and to tell you what you want to hear. It is my job to take the difficult decisions that are needed to get the police through these tough times and to put policing on a sustainable footing."
The Home Secretary insisted the Government was "doing everything we can to protect frontline jobs".
Challenged over the amount of taxpayers' money being spent on international aid, Ms May was greeted with laughter when she said it would help tackle terrorism on the streets of the UK.
She ended her speech by paying tribute to officers killed on duty and telling the federation they were the finest officers in the world, but she faced complete silence – in contrast to her critics.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said Ms May was "still in denial about the damage her policies are causing to police forces and communities across the country".
Mrs Cooper added: "The Home Secretary should spend more time focusing on fighting crime than fighting the police."