Boris Johnson accused of using police as ‘political tool’ after being flanked by officers for Brexit speech

Prime minister lambasted after police officer falls unwell during press conference in Yorkshire

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 05 September 2019 22:43 BST
Boris Johnson stumbles as he fails to recall a police caution

Boris Johnson has been accused of using the stretched police force as a “political tool” after giving a speech against a backdrop of uniformed officers.

The Independent understands Downing Street requested the unusual staging at a police training centre in Wakefield, where a student officer standing behind the prime minister fell ill.

The speech had been scheduled to mark the start of a campaign to recruit 20,000 extra police officers, a pledge Mr Johnson has promised to deliver over the next three years. But after he quickly turned to Brexit and the prospect of a snap general election, police accused the prime minister of “politicising” their colleagues.

An officer who was stabbed as he fought terrorists during the London Bridge attack was among those voicing concern.

“Thought we weren’t allowed to show any political allegiances,” said PC Charlie Guenigault, who was awarded a George Medal for his heroism. “Looks exactly like that and sends off the wrong message.”

There was no immediate comment from West Yorkshire Police on who had sanctioned the officers’ appearance, but the local police and crime commissioner said he had not been consulted.

Mark Burns-Williamson told the BBC Mr Johnson had “abused” the force for a “political speech about Brexit”.

Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper, whose constituency is covered by the same force, said it was an “abuse of power” to keep officers and cadets from their training.

“Police officers and trainees are overstretched and need to be able to get on with their job, not have to waste time listening to Mr Johnson’s political press conference,” she added.

“For Mr Johnson to draw so many of them into a long, election driven event like this is completely inappropriate and it is unfair on the people of West Yorkshire, who are entitled to expect that their police are allowed to get on with the job of working and training to keep them safe.”

Ms Cooper said she would be writing to the cabinet secretary and chief constable of West Yorkshire Police to ask how the event occurred.

Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow policing minister, called the staging “contemptible”, saying officers were being “used as props for naked electioneering after voting to cut thousands of their colleagues”.

The prime minister at one point asked the assembled officers if they knew the police caution given during all arrests, then struggled to remember the 37-word phrase.

The officer who became unwell was among dozens who had remained on their feet for at least 20 minutes waiting for Mr Johnson, who was late, and throughout his televised speech and questions.

The student officer appeared unsteady on her feet and was breathing heavily, before sitting down behind the prime minister.

Boris Johnson delivering a speech in Wakefield
Boris Johnson delivering a speech in Wakefield (Getty)

“Don’t worry, I’m going to end very soon,” Mr Johnson said, then continued to criticise Jeremy Corbyn’s position on a general election.

The officer was able to return to her feet as he departed the stage, and West Yorkshire Police said she did not require medical treatment.

Some officers drew attention to the code of ethics governing officers in England and Wales, which states: “Police officers must not take any active part in politics. This is intended to prevent you from placing yourself in a position where your impartiality may be questioned.”

The Police Inspectors Twitter account, which is run by a retired officer, said policing was being used as an “election tool”.

A post pointed out that Conservative budget cuts had resulted in the loss of more than 20,000 police officers and closure of 600 police stations, adding: “This is how policing is being used as a political election campaign and it is a disgrace.”

Mary Creagh, the Labour MP for Wakefield, suggested the chief constable of West Yorkshire Police had given permission for police cadets to be “used as wallpaper for Johnson’s party political stunt”.

Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, asked: “When the Tories have cut the number of police to the bone, is it really a good idea for the PM to then use a large number of them as props?”

West Yorkshire Police said the prime minister and home secretary went on to meet recruits at training staff at its Carr Gate facility.

Chief Constable John Robins said: “With the recruitment of these officers over the next few years, we are in a better position to now deliver the service that the public deserve and expect.”

John Apter, national chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: “I am surprised that police officers were used as a backdrop for a political speech in this way. I am sure that on reflection all concerned will agree that this was the wrong decision and it is disappointing that the focus has been taken away from the recruitment of 20,000 officers. This is what we should be talking about, this is what is important.”

The press conference came a day after the chancellor promised £750m for the first year of recruiting 20,000 extra officers, with £45m to be spent by the end of 2019 to hire the first 2,000.

Police leaders have raised doubts over whether there will be enough suitable candidates or sufficient training capacity to hit the target in three years.

Analysis by The Independent suggests that more than 46,000 officers will have to be hired to hit 20,000 and replace those leaving the service, while more than half of police forces are failing to meet recruitment targets.

Even if achieved, the uplift would still fall short of the 21,000 officers lost since 2010 – and there are no plans to reverse the separate decline of 15,000 police staff.

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