It is “crime day” at the Tory conference, normally one when the party feels on strong ground, knowing its tough stance appeals to both activists inside the hall and many voters outside it.
Yet the mood of Tory members here in Manchester is jittery on this issue. A revealing message on the screen in the conference hall reminded them that “we are the party of law and order”, just in case they weren’t sure. There is grassroots restlessness about Priti Patel’s failure, despite her sometimes desperate rhetoric, to stem the flow of refugees and migrants crossing the Channel in record numbers via small boats. Hardly what Brexiteers thought “taking back control” would mean.
The aftermath of the horrific Sarah Everard case is awkward for the government too. Ministers are wary of further undermining public confidence in the police by criticising them but Patel finally announced in her conference speech an inquiry into the “systemic failures” and issues raised by the conviction of Wayne Couzens. “We need answers as to why this was allowed to happen,” she said. But her decision last month to reappoint Cressida Dick for another two years as Metropolitan Police commissioner is open to question given Dick’s uncertain response to the affair.
For her speech, Patel came armed with a heavily trailed crackdown to make it easier for police to stop protestors like the Insulate Britain climate campaigners who have caused disruption on the M25 motorway. This wins an easy headline but protestors have a way of finding loopholes in whatever changes are made to the law.
On the issue of migrants, the home secretary said she is “exploring all possible options” and vowed to stay the course. She hopes to strike a deal with a third country allowing migrants to be processed there, in the hope that acts as a deterrent.
In media interviews today, Boris Johnson acknowledged that long delays in the justice system were a major concern for women. There is “no excuse for the delays and the frustration that women are experiencing, and we need to fix it,” he said.
But in his speech, Dominic Raab, the new justice secretary, preferred to play to the Tory gallery by promising to increase the number of offenders who are electronically tagged. He offered little hope of finding the resources to speed up the justice process or tackling the record backlog in the courts after the pandemic. Robert Buckland, sacked as justice secretary last month, told Johnson in a parting shot that “our legal system needs investment” after “years of underfunding.”
Tory representatives gave Raab a polite response and managed a warm one for Patel. But the home secretary, once the conference darling, has see her star fall amid criticism of her performance. In the monthly survey of Tory members’ views of the cabinet by ConservativeHome.com, Patel has dropped from seventh place with a net satisfaction rating of plus 76 points in December 2019 to third from bottom now, with a rating of just plus 10 points. Despite that, Johnson didn’t relegate her to the backbenches or a less challenging post in last month’s reshuffle, as some Tory MPs hoped and expected.
Allies insist Patel is “delivering,” reorganising a Home Office in need of a shake-up, bringing in a points-based immigration system and recruiting half the 20,000 police officers promised in the Tory manifesto.
Yet the Tories appear rattled they are not scoring runs on their favourite law and order pitch. Perhaps they are trying too hard. Frank Luntz, the veteran former US Republican Party pollster, told a Tory fringe meeting staged by The Spectator: “If you are talking about crime in government, it means by definition you are failing. If you acknowledge that you need a new focus on crime, you are acknowledging you are not succeeding.”
Ministers say reducing crime is part of their “levelling up” agenda but that dilutes the impact of Johnson’s flagship programme, which needs to be more focused rather than “all things to to all men,” as one Tory MP told me.
Although they will never admit it, there is another reason for the Tories’ anxiety about law and order. Patel and Raab made ritual Tory attacks on Labour for being “soft” on crime but they ring hollow now that Keir Starmer leads the party. Indeed, it was perfectly credible when Labour last week turned the tables to brand the Tories “soft on crime and the causes of crime.”
Labour spent the summer campaigning on anti-social behaviour. In his conference speech, Starmer spoke passionately and movingly about his work as head of the Crown Prosecution Service, notably on helping victims. Although that is not going to win him an election in itself, it could be a very useful unique selling point.
Starmer recalled prosecuting MPs over their expenses claims, a nod to a “clean up politics” pitch at the next election and exploiting the Johnson government’s tendency to behave as if there is one rule for it and another for everyone else. If unchecked, that could yet turn out to be the Tories’ fatal flaw.
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