Cameron in clash with right-wing over police reforms

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David Cameron called for the sacking of "bad" police officers as he dismissed criticism by right-wing Tories that he risks alienating the party's natural supporters.

The Conservative leader outlined plans to end the "job for life" culture under which, he said, police chiefs found it almost impossible to dismiss an "under-performing" officer determined to clock up 30 years' service and obtain a generous pension.

Mr Cameron argued that being tough on crime also meant taking "tough decisions" on police reform. In a speech calling for a fundamental shake-up, he said: "First, police forces must be made more accountable to local communities. Second, police pay and conditions must be modernised to ensure much better police performance."

He proposed local flexibility over pay and conditions, and pensions, with new employment contracts allowing "bad officers" to be sacked, a cut in the number of police on full pay but "restricted duties" and a presumption that they would not take second jobs.

Mr Cameron also hit back at growing right-wing criticism, led by the former Tory chairman Lord Tebbit, that his modernisation plans risk making his party indistinguishable from Labour. Stressing his need to reach out beyond the Tories' core vote, he said: "We need to leave the comfort zone and make ourselves relevant to today's challenges."

He said he would not "pretend to disagree" on issues like education which were too important for the good of the country. But he added: "There are still plenty of differences between the principal parties. There are differences in values. At the heart of everything I do is trusting people - we are saying let's trust people to elect local police commissioners. The Government takes the opposite approach - much more top down, government knows best."

The Tory leader insisted he was not attacking Margaret Thatcher despite distancing himself from her views on private health treatment and "society" in his recent policy statements. "I think Mrs Thatcher was a moderniser. She asked what were the big challenges facing Britain ... she saved us from being an economic basket case. But the challenge for politicians of my generation is to ask what are the big challenges now and what the Conservatives ought to be doing about it."

Mr Cameron pledged to scrap the Government's national policing plan. He said the Tories would maintain the police's operational independence, but local politicians would be able to set strategic objectives - with the ultimate sanction of being able to hire and fire the chief constable.

Options to be considered included police authorities being directly elected, or replaced by a directly elected police commissioner or elected mayors.

Mr Cameron said: "The Conservative Party has always valued and supported the police. But there cannot be a blank cheque. I make this offer to Britain's police. You make the changes which will improve police performance. And we will stop the centralisation, bureaucracy and political interference that gets in your way."