The most important decision that Boris Johnson made when he became Prime Minister was to appoint Priti Patel as Home Secretary. It ticked a huge number of boxes: it sent the strongest of signals that this is a government by and for Leave voters and that its No Deal position isn’t just a posture. It was one of a slew of promotions for ethnic minority Conservatives, particularly from a British Asian background, a vital first step if the Tory party is going to do as well among British ethnic minority voters as Vote Leave did.
But, just as importantly, it meant a transformation in the government’s tone and style on criminal justice. In Theresa May’s government – at least in its weakened 2017-9 phase – the most important minister as far as criminal justice was concerned was David Gauke. He continued and built on the work reforming British prisons and criminal justice policy that Michael Gove had kicked off at the department. Although May’s Downing Street operation privately opposed a lot of what Gauke was doing, they weren’t powerful enough to prevent it.
Patel is an authoritarian and one who is comfortable in front of a camera. Coupled with Gauke’s resignation due to his opposition to a no-deal Brexit that gives the government the opportunity to go hard on criminal justice issues, which are this week’s big theme as far as government announcements go. First up: increasing the size of the prison population and reversing some of the cuts to police numbers since 2010. It builds on Patel’s comments that she wanted would-be-criminals to “literally feel terror” at the prospect of committing crimes.
For the Conservatives, they will hope that it has a double whammy: the first is to remove Labour’s “the problem with austerity is all these police cuts” attack line which was very effective at the last election. The second is to move the debate over crime away from a question of public spending, which the Labour leadership is very comfortable on, and onto an argument about how draconian sentences should be – an argument Labour is a lot less happy having.
Will it work? The polling is clear – the Patel approach is popular with the public, and the Gauke one isn’t. But there are two risks: the first is that a decent-sized chunk of the 30 per cent of people who dislike the approach have voted Conservative in the past and went walkabout to the Liberal Democrats in 2017 to a lesser extent and to a far greater and more devastating extent in the 2019 European and local elections. It would worry me, if I worked in Downing Street, that my offer to this group is just to remind them that Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party – that threat loses some of its potency when the Conservatives are leading in the polls.
The second risk is that it gives Labour an opportunity to argue that the Conservatives’ economic plan as a whole has failed – that despite the fact debt is still at a historic high as a share of GDP, they can afford to spend money on their preferred political projects. Their good fortune is that, so far, that opportunity hasn’t been seized.