Tories and the police

A blank cheque expected?

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A lively debate took place on the fringes of the Conservative conference last night, as Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday clashed with Paul McKeever, the head of the Police Federation, and David Ruffley, shadow minister for the police.

As the chair, I confined my remarks to a claim that no politician in power since Kenneth Clarke was home secretary had attempted to reform the police to make it more accountable, leaving the force as the last "closed shop" in Britain today. (I have criticised the police in an NS piece here and in the Pol-Fed's own magazine here.)

McKeever, a distinguished officer who policed the Brixton Riots in the 1980s and clearly a particularly decent man, gave a spirited defence of the force, even claiming that "there is no more accountable body in Britain today".

Hitchens, as is his wont, went on an articulate and polemical rampage against "liberal" police priorities and the non-preventative, reactive inability of the police to protect the "middle classes". His message was by turns hilarious and worrying.

Ruffley also defended the police, and -- despite the Tory commitment to elected police authorities -- laid to rest any fears in the force that the opposition intends to go in for major reform. Instead, he said the main task of an incoming Tory government would be to lift the "burdens" off the police, and not worry "endlessly about public order issues". When I pressed him about the importance of the latter, given misleading statements that Met chiefs put out in the wake of the killings of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson, he backtracked slightly, saying he would be seeking "more accountability".

Nonetheless, it appears that the police will -- as with New Labour -- be given a free ride if the Tories win next year.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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