A guide to borrowing a horse from the Metropolitan Police

Cameron confirms that he did ride Brooks' horse. So how can you get a retired police horse of your o

The latest SHOCK DEVELOPMENT in Horse-gate is that David Cameron, long time riding buddy of Rebekah Brooks, did indeed ride her horse. That's not an innuendo (but you're welcome for the mental image). It is a reference to the news earlier this week that the Metropolitan Police loaned Brooks a retired police horse between 2008 and 2010, when she was editor of the Sun.

In an admission of dishonesty that's up there with Watergate, Cameron conceded that he had allowed a "confusing picture" to emerge about his riding of Raisa the horse. He told reporters:

He [Charlie Brooks -- Rebekah's husband and long-time friend of Cameron's] has a number of horses and, yes, one of them was this former police horse Raisa which I did ride.

I am very sorry to hear that Raisa is no longer with us and I think I should probably conclude by saying I don't think I will be getting back into the saddle any time soon.

The Met's line has consistently been that it is no big deal and retired horses are re-homed all the time. But how exactly would one go about it? Maybe I'd like a retired police horse. It's always good to keep your options open.

I called the Met's press office this morning to ask how it all works. The nice man I spoke to read out the information that I'd already seen on their website:

At the end of the police horse's working life the animal is re-homed at one of many identified establishments who have previously contacted the Mounted Branch with a view to offering a home.

The Mounted Branch is looking for suitable homes for retired horses, that is homes where the horse will not be ridden.

Anyone in the southeast of England offering such a home will be considered first.

But who are these people? Apart from national newspaper editors, obvs. "Anyone in the south-east who offers to take them on," he tells me, sounding bored. "They're people who register an interest in re-homing a horse with the Mounted Branch. Officers will assess whether it's a suitable home." So they go and check the house? He laughs. "I don't know if they check the house. They assess whether it's a suitable home."

I'm still not getting a sense of exactly the process works, so I ask again. Who are these people? How do they apply? He repeats the paragraph above, which is helpful.

Although he tells me that in 2011, eight horses retired, in 2010, 10 did, and in 2009, 11, I can't shake my suspicion that there was something not quite regular about this case. Brooks returned her horse, Raisa, after two years. That doesn't sound like retirement. Indeed, the arrangement has been most frequently described as a "loan". Is that the same? "Well, yes," he says, impatient at my idiotic implication that retirement isn't normally temporary. "They can still be returned to the care of the MPS after they've retired."

And another thing -- the only suitable homes are those where the horse will not be ridden? "Yes, they are homes where the horse will not be ridden."

If Brooks was indeed part of the rehoming programme, she might want to have words with Cameron, who has inadvertently grassed her up for breaking the rules. Raisa was not just ridden by her owners, but by the future Prime Minister, no less. The Mounted Branch office might want to work on that suitability assessment process.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's half-hearted "reset" is not enough to win back voters to the SNP

Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests the First Minister is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s concerns.

In Scots law, under a charge of robbery, theft, breach of trust, embezzlement, falsehood, fraud or wilful imposition, the accused may be convicted of "reset". It’s not clear which of these particular terms Nicola Sturgeon had in mind this week when she used that word to describe her reformed plans for a second independence referendum. Fraud seems a little too strong. Breach of trust or wilful imposition are perhaps closer to the mark.

It’s been many, many years since the SNP has seemed this unsure of its footing. Fair enough: who in politics isn’t, these days? But the slow-motion car crash that is Scotland’s governing party deserves a prime-time slot all of its own. "The SNP has squandered what was an extraordinarily strong position," says a thoughtful observer from the opposition benches.

If Sturgeon’s authority hasn’t gone – and she continues to rule Scotland’s most popular mainstream party, both at Holyrood and Westminster – it has undeniably taken a shellacking. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the First Minister’s early years in power is no more, both within and without the SNP. "What struck me as she announced her 'reset' was that a woman who was often listened to in respectful silence in the past found herself being shouted at by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories," says a source. "There was giggling and mockery, which is new. She seemed diminished."

My own judgement is that the reset proposal, which amounts to little more than extending the deadline for a second indyref by six months to a year, will do almost nothing to woo back the half-million voters who deserted the Nats between the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In my experience, these people don’t want the referendum delayed for six months, they want it off the table. They also want the SNP to shut up about it, and they want to see the public services and the economy given full attention. That is the challenge they have set the First Minister in the four years left of this Holyrood parliament. In an enlightening article in the Guardian this week, Severin Carrell quotes voters from the "Tartan Tory" areas that recently unseated Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson. "Fed up with the SNP, simple as."

Fed up. Sturgeon’s greatest error – a charge levelled by internal critics – was to force and win a vote at Holyrood on the holding of another referendum, after the Brexit decision but before Article 50 was triggered. In the minds of voters already worried about leaving the EU and looking for what we might call strong and stable leadership, this merely confirmed the SNP’s monomania: that it saw literally everything as a pretext for independence. The step looked cynical, it looked rushed, it looked, well, desperate.

To be fair to the First Minister, she was playing a double game. Obviously, she supports breaking up the UK and needs to continually feed the beast that is the separatist movement, but she also hoped the looming threat of another referendum would give her leverage as the UK negotiated Brexit, perhaps to secure a distinct deal of some kind for Scotland. She was wrong. "Theresa May would show up for meetings with the various leaders of the UK’s nations, read from a script and then refuse to take questions," says an SNP insider. "The whole thing has been a shambles. The British government just isn’t interested."

This deliberate mutual misunderstanding is a problem not just for the SNP, but for the smooth running of the UK. Pre-devolution, a deal such as that struck with the DUP would have been discussed in Cabinet where powerful Scottish and Welsh secretaries would demand and usually emerge with some goodies for back home. Now, each nation is run by a different tribe, the relationships are oppositional and antagonistic, and no side wants to make things easier for the other. Britain has stopped talking to itself, and stopped trading with itself. We have spiralled off into our own mini-cultures, which often bear little resemblance to each other.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeon looks like the author of her own misfortune. Her tone in Holyrood as she announced the ‘reset’ was unapologetic and belligerent. There was no real humility or admission of error, and no sense that an indyref was in any way off the table. Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests she is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s day-to-day concerns or in listening to them. Her team seem unable or unwilling to absorb this. "They’re still pushing far too hard," says one Tory source. "The only way I can make sense of it is that they’re playing it like a poker hand. They’ve come too far and feel they have no choice but to go all-in. But it’s a losing hand."

There are only two routes I can see that might, perhaps, make something of a difference. The first is a comprehensive reshuffle that brings some of the smarter, younger MSPs into the government. Many of them, as newcomers to the cause, speak differently about independence and their reasons for joining the SNP than do the generation of Sturgeon, Salmond, John Swinney and Mike Russell.

The second is to return to the debate about devo max or federalism. Again, in conversation with the new generation of Nats you are more likely to discuss these options. A number of them are technocrats who have a view of the way Scotland should be governed. They might see independence as the best way to achieve this, but they are also open to a looser relationship within the UK, one that might involve greater powers around taxation, spending and borrowing. With every UK region outside London running a chunky deficit, Scotland could set its own deficit-reduction target and develop a plan to get there. Not only would that be good for the UK economy, it would also allow the SNP to demonstrate that a separate state could work - and indeed, would work.

In short, the SNP will not whine its way to independence. Its best option now is to do what the Scottish people are asking it to do: make a better job of running the place, and stop talking about independence for a while. First, though, that requires the party to listen.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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