My wife hails from Cheshire and it’s true, it really is one of Britain’s most sublime counties. The folk – well, the ones we meet, anyway – seem awfully nice and polite to each other.
But, until this week, I’d not realised just how civilised and genteel they are. At the Police Federation annual conference in Bournemouth, Ken Davies from Cheshire said he’d been a frontline officer for 21 years, during which time he’d saved lives and been physically attacked. He added, his voice quavering: “I have never had such an attack and a personal kicking.”
The person responsible for inflicting such misery – honestly, it sounded like Davies was going to burst into tears – was Theresa May. Yes, that’s right: the 57-year-old daughter of a Church of England clergyman; Tory MP for Maidenhead; and for the last four years, Home Secretary.
I assume that Davies’s patch takes in some of the badlands on the edges of Manchester and Merseyside. Maybe not. Perhaps when he says he was physically attacked, it was by someone a lot older and frailer than May, possibly a retired gent in a leafy lane outside Nantwich waving a walking stick in his direction.
Because you have to wonder, listening to Davies, whether he even lives in this over-crowded, seething country of ours. But it is not just the timorous copper from Cheshire. Some of his colleagues also displayed an alarming lack of proximity to reality.
That word was also one she used. May told the assembly, “it’s time to face up to reality”, before rattling off a roll-call of shame: Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence, the death of Ian Tomlinson, Plebgate. She urged the listening members of the police union, “to show the public that you get it”.
May did not just deliver a list of dishonour. She said the federation had to accept the Normington reforms – 36 measures drawn up by Sir David Normington in a review of the body’s structure and activities.
And she went further. From now on, the federation would be an “opt-in” organisation, so officers were not automatically enrolled as members; accounts held by its branches would be scrutinised and published; it would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act; public funding for the top three officials would be stopped. Make no mistake, she said. “The federation was created by an Act of Parliament and it can be reformed by an Act of Parliament. If you do not change of your own accord, we will impose change on you.”
An emotional Davies accused May of “threatening to bully us”. Will Riches, one of two candidates hoping to become the federation’s next president, was more aggressive and disdainful. Riches said that the Home Secretary was “displaying a contempt for the public”, and questioned whether she actually wanted a better police force: “I certainly hope that my members will not feel it’s harder to police [as a result of May’s speech].”
Hearing Riches on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme sparked a flashback. At times, Riches, a Londoner, sounded just like the late Bob Crow. He exhibited the same inability to answer a direct question with a direct answer, and a familiar desire to put his members before the rest of society. God knows what they’re like on the federation’s Constables’ Central Committee that Riches chairs. Suffice to say, Jack Warner in Dixon of Dock Green he is not.
I admit to never having “got” May. I met her at the Tory party conference all those years ago when she emerged to wow the faithful. Was it anything she said that made them swoon? Not a bit of it. What turned them on was her choice of leopard skin shoes. She was regarded as coquettish and daring – these were the Conservatives, after all.
In person, she appeared little different from the other women who had risen in the party. Bar one. And she was not Mrs Thatcher.
Since then, I’ve always dismissed the “May for leader” talk. But, credit where it’s due, she’s made two, brave, stand-out speeches. One was telling the Tory conference in 2003: “There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”
The other was to the police. Each time, she delivered it straight, bluntly excoriating her audience. It takes nerves to do that, to sit down in total silence as she did at the federation gathering.
She was able to do so, however, because of just how far those she was hectoring had sunk. In 2003, the Tories had suffered their second, crushing election defeat in a row. In 2013, a third of the public distrust the police – an embarrassing statistic for a service that is built entirely on trust and doing good.
But a succession of scandals has shaken that faith. The federation has not helped. Amid the almost daily exposure of cover-ups and failings, the representative body has chosen to bury its head in the sand. As May said, it was no longer acceptable “to mouth platitudes about a ‘few bad apples’”.
Worse, the federation has gone on the offensive – from not only being in denial but to giving the impression of actively supporting those bad apples. As a journalist, if you’re in the newsroom, one of the lessons you pick up early on is to be prepared, if you’re painting a police officer in a hint of a negative light, for the wrath of the Police Federation.
No other trade union or professional association is so forceful in the protection of its members. You know you will almost certainly receive a lawyer’s letter complaining and seeking redress; you know the police officer concerned will obtain the federation’s full backing.
And, you suspect, they will have done so as a matter of course, without any examination as to whether the accusation happens to be true.
I can’t think of another similar entity that is viewed with such loathing by the media as the Police Federation. Putting aside arguments about press unfairness, and newspapers themselves behaving appallingly, including towards the police, the fact is it should not be like this.
Finally, something is being done. I don’t care whether May was engaging in blatant self-promotion, seizing upon the weakness and unpopularity of the police to boost her own leadership credentials. But again, it says much that a Tory was able to attack the police to stake her claim.
She said it, and all credit to her. Hopefully, the federation will at last stop abusing the messenger – something it’s done frightfully well in the past – and ignore the likes of Davies and Riches, and listen to the message. On this occasion, not even the Police Federation could claim it wasn’t warned.