Editorial: Talking up crime now smacks of desperation

Every government in hot water feels tempted to reach for the button marked law and order, and press hard. Dramatic-sounding promises to get tougher on crime, even when they involve mingling recycled old policies with genuinely new material, are guaranteed to calm feverish headlines and soothe the panicked brows of the party faithful – for a while. Such considerations have fed into the calculations of the Prime Minister as he delivers his first major speech on crime today. It's been planned for some time but the timing is fortuitous, following a week in which Andrew Mitchell's resignation led straight into confusion on energy policy and the furore over the Chancellor's first-class train ride.

Some of what David Cameron says in unveiling a "tough but intelligent" approach on law and order breaks no new ground. Life sentences for gun runners who supply lethal weapons to gangsters sounds like a fresh idea. But pledges to toughen community sentences and the prison regime generally are hardly revolutionary. What Mr Cameron is engaged in here is that New Labour speciality, "reheating" policies, and it suggests an element of barrel-scraping.

Nor do the Prime Minister's words mark quite as radical a rupture from the liberal, rehabilitation-centred approach of the former Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, as some may believe. Policies in place on rehabilitation of offenders, Mr Clarke's hallmark, are not about to be done away with, hence the inclusion of the term "intelligent" to balance out the accent on toughness. Not for the first time, Mr Cameron is trying to have it both ways, sounding tough on crime, but not so tough as to incur accusations of being reactionary.

At the same time, the Prime Minister's speech is, in a sense, part two of the same cabinet reshuffle that saw Mr Clarke eased out in favour of the more traditional Tory Chris Grayling and a shift to the right. The tougher-sounding crime strategy dovetails with a less environmentally sensitive approach to energy and transport questions and a more aggressive stance towards Brussels. Bundled up with a promise of an eventual referendum on Europe, it forms part of a mission to reconcile Mr Cameron to grass-roots Tories who feel alienated from his inner circle and bewildered by the experience of coalition government.

The risk in this strategy is that Mr Cameron will end up enthusing a rump of traditional Tories at the expense of floating voters, while the lesson of recent decades is that vacating the political centre ground rarely leads to an election victory. Some Tory strategists will say that crime does not fall into this political danger zone, as the population as a whole is more right-wing on crime than the elite. This may have been true, but a potential snag in this line of thinking is that as crime rates in general fall, crime may be losing its former potency as an election issue. Pledges to bang up more criminals may no longer be the guaranteed vote-winner that they once appeared to be.

The other problem facing Mr Cameron with his new crime strategy is of political credibility. The Prime Minister started out as a leader who married fiscal conservatism with socially liberal attitudes – a man who was believed to want to hug hoodies, not lock them up. By suddenly changing tack, he risks leaving traditional Tories feeling unconvinced and liberal Tories – a diminishing crowd, admittedly – feeling betrayed. If the net result is further confirmation of his reputation in the country at large for inconsistency, he may regret having embarked on this question in the first place.