The rise in knife crime could put Labour in power as the impact of Tory austerity is laid bare

Knife crime has been evident for over a year but has now hit the front pages after the killings of two 17-year-olds in London and Cheshire. It’s a big threat to Theresa May’s legacy

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 06 March 2019 12:39 GMT
TV host Alex Beresford makes passionate salient point on how to combat knife crime

Theresa May knows that the outcome of the Brexit process will be engraved on her political tombstone, but still hopes something else will feature: her record as six years at the Home Office.

At the time, May appeared to defy political gravity by making a success of a difficult job that had provided the career epitaph for several of her predecessors. But now her record does not look so good. The Windrush scandal and her “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, continue to fester. Her senseless target to reduce net migration to below 100,000 a year remains way out of reach.

This week an even bigger threat to May’s legacy has emerged. The rise in knife crime has been evident for over a year but has now hit the front pages after the killings of two 17-year-olds in London and Cheshire. This calls into question two of May’s central policies as home secretary: cutting the number of police officers by 20,000 (15 per cent) and reducing the use of stop-and- search powers to allay fears the black community was unfairly targeted.

In 2015, May was unwise to accuse the Police Federation of “crying wolf” over the job cuts when crime did not rise initially. She was also unwise to declare on Monday that there is “no direct correlation” between police numbers and knife crime. A prime minister in denial again. Home Office research last year found that the job losses were unlikely to have triggered the increase in serious violence, “but may be an underlying driver that allowed the rise to continue.”

Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, has put May right and even the prime minister’s official spokesman had to row back on her comments.

May told a tense cabinet debate on Tuesday she is “not anti stop-and-search”. But it appears that Sajid Javid, the home secretary, who holds talks with seven police chiefs on Wednesday, intends to reverse the job cuts and give police powers to search suspects without specific grounds. Boris Johnson, who did help to cut knife crime as London mayor, has opportunistically weighed in with a warning that May’s decision to reduce stop-and-search “turned out to be a very grave mistake”. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, shares May’s view that the police can do “more with less”, but, as with austerity generally, that argument looks threadbare in the current crisis. I suspect Hammond will be forced to loosen the purse strings.

It is true that the budget squeeze, which has deprived the police of valuable intelligence from neighbourhood officers, is only part of the picture on knife crime. But the wider causes are linked to austerity and that is also dangerous for the Conservatives.

For years, Treasury officials have marvelled in private at how hard-pressed local authorities have absorbed the spending cuts imposed by central government – a 49 per cent reduction in grants since 2010. Now the centre finally reaps what it sowed. Six in 10 councils can carry out only their statutory core functions. Hence the closure of 600 youth clubs since 2010, and a lack of after-school provision, which would have kept some teenagers off the streets.

The number of school exclusions is rising; there is evidence that these children are groomed by drugs gangs. Schools should not be allowed to exclude vulnerable pupils to boost their ratings as exam factories. It would be better for head teachers to retain responsibility for such pupils, who are 200 times more likely to commit an offence involving knives than other children. The model for England should be the multi-agency “public health” approach pioneered in Glasgow since 2005, covering education, social work, health, housing and employment.

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Conservative MPs are rightly worried that the horrific spate of killings will call into question the Tories’ long-standing reputation as the party of law and order. For some, May’s characteristically stubborn refusal to recognise her own mistakes at the Home Office provides another reason to push her out of Downing Street this summer.

The current crisis is a gift for Labour, which can be on the right side of public opinion without making spending pledges voters might oppose, such as tax rises or reversing benefit cuts. The Tories had been warned: when terror attacks in London and Manchester scarred the 2017 election campaign, their law and order credentials were eclipsed by Jeremy Corbyn shrewdly making the link with austerity and the police job cuts.

Lord Blair of Boughton, the former Met commissioner, argues that we need another 20,000 officers. That, of course, would be the ultimate U-turn. It will probably fall to May’s successor to make it.

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