Boris Johnson 's attempt to turn the political spotlight on domestic issues will not be as easy to achieve as he thinks. Yes, he can still grab headlines by replaying some old hits on crime , and describing offenders guilty of anti-social behaviour as being in "chain gangs" as they do clean-up community work. But the Tories risk looking like a stuck record.
Kit Malthouse, the crime and policing minister, admitted Johnson's language on "chain gangs" was about "trying to bring to life a policy in an interesting way". I look forward to the first and probably only photo opportunity, even though the gang will not actually be in chains. Malthouse was also candid enough to admit that making it easier for police to use stop and search powers (which they had not requested) would provide only a short rather than long-term solution to knife crime. Never mind the damage to relations between the police and black community.
The “beating crime plan” has a hole at its heart: fraud and digital crime now accounts for a third of offences, and some senior Tories fear the government will pay a political price for not getting a grip. As one former minister put it: "'Chain gangs' are all very well but online crime is the issue that could come up and bite us."
Downing Street designated this week as "crime week" because it knew Home Office statistics would be published today showing progress towards Johnson's pledge to recruit 20,000 police officers in England and Wales. Some 12,896 have joined since the start of 2019. But the public knows achieving this target will only take us back to where we were in 2010, when Tory austerity cut 20,000 officers.
Johnson's recent speech on "levelling up" was designed to be the moment when normal politics of sorts resumed but the number of Covid cases was rising sharply and it was rightly panned for lacking substance. His hastily cobbled together crime plan, on which the police were not consulted in advance, won't cut it either. The aim, Johnson told Tory supporters revealingly, is to claim Labour "still can't be trusted to tackle crime," which reflects the Tories' fears that Keir Starmer is invading their natural territory. The former director of public prosecutions is happy to remind us he prosecuted terrorists. He is not Jeremy Corbyn, whose credentials on security matters were permanently tarnished by his response to the Salisbury poisonings.
The Tories' own vulnerability was shown when Priti Patel, the home secretary, avoided media questions on the day the plan was launched so she could not be asked about the Police Federation's vote of no confidence in her over the police pay freeze. It's unusual for a home secretary to be what politicos call a "submarine" who surfaces only occasionally. Patel's tough rhetoric on crime and immigration cheers Tory right-wingers but some acknowledge that after two years in the job, she now needs to show some delivery.
It's obvious why the prime minister does not want to be judged on his patchy performance on coronavirus alone; one opinion poll shows more people (48 per cent) disapprove than approve (32 per cent) of its handling, the biggest net deficit since February. With Johnson's personal ratings falling and four of the five most recent surveys showing a shrinking Tory lead over Labour, the vaccine bounce has fizzled out and Johnson needs to fight back to steady Tory nerves. But it's not easy to change the music when the pandemic isn't over yet, even though some ministers can't wait to declare that. One told today's Daily Mail that Covid's grip on the UK is "all over bar the shouting." Let's hope they're right. But Johnson was wise to tell LBC radio today "it is far, far too early to draw any general conclusions" from the encouraging data.
Even if the drop in Covid cases proves a turning point, difficult decisions on the pandemic lie ahead. Ministers fear privately the autumn will be dominated by Covid backlogs – in health, education and the courts (which will hardly help the fight against crime). Then there's the minefield of international travel and controversy over domestic Covid passports. Tory lockdown sceptics feel betrayed: although "freedom day" went ahead in England, they hated Johnson's cautious tone and what they view as the sneaky, back door introduction of authoritarian measures like the passports.
Greater salience for other issues will not make life easier for Johnson. Tory revolts also loom over plans to boost housebuilding and increase national insurance for social care. In a government-wide spending review, Johnson will finally have to address the unresolved tension between him and Rishi Sunak over whether the Tories remain big spenders as the PM wishes or return to fiscal responsibility as the chancellor wants. Like Covid, the domestic path is littered with thorns.
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