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9 November 2023

How the Conservatives ended up at war with the police

Suella Braverman’s attack on the Met reflects a deeper rupture.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has gone further in her critique of the Metropolitan Police’s attitude to pro-Palestinian marches. Having branded these as “hate marches” and accused the force of failing to arrest certain demonstrators (including those chanting “jihad”), she has written in the Times that senior officers apply “double standards” to different protest groups.

In the piece, she asked: “During Covid, why was it that lockdown objectors were given no quarter by public order police yet Black Lives Matters demonstrators were enabled, allowed to break rules and even greeted with officers taking the knee?”

She went on to argue that “pro-Palestinian mobs” showing “identical behaviour” to aggressive right-wing nationalists are “largely ignored” by police who “play favourites” among protest groups.

Ahead of Armistice Day (11 November), when a pro-Palestinian march will weave through central London on the same day as the traditional ceremony to commemorate Britain’s war dead at the Cenotaph (though not at the same time or place), ministers have been putting pressure on the Met.

As well as Braverman, the Justice Secretary Alex Chalk and security minister Tom Tugendhat have said the protest shouldn’t go ahead, while the Prime Minister and his deputy Oliver Dowden have also expressed concerns. Rishi Sunak has called the planned march “disrespectful”, but conceded “the right to peacefully protest”.

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Under section 13 of the Public Order Act 1986, a chief constable of a police force can decide to ban a march if they have grounds to believe that no other action they could take would prevent serious public disorder. They must then have this decision approved by the Home Secretary.

Mark Rowley, the Met Police commissioner, has defied Braverman’s pressure so far, saying there wasn’t enough intelligence indicating the potential for serious disorder. He also emphasised the Met’s operational independence: “The reason we have an independent police service is so that among debate, opinion, emotion and conflict, we stand in the centre, focused simply on the law and the facts in front of us.”

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While Braverman is known for her provocative and hard-line rhetoric, it’s a peculiar row. Conservative home secretaries have generally stood by their Met chiefs lately. Priti Patel, Braverman’s predecessor as home secretary, condemned the London Mayor Sadiq Khan for triggering Cressida Dick’s resignation in 2022, and defended her record. She even backed the Met’s heavy-handed policing of the 2021 vigil for Sarah Everard, who was raped and murdered by a serving Met officer.

No 10 and the Home Office wouldn’t allow a Met commissioner appointee they didn’t like. Neil Basu – a senior Met officer who was once the favourite to replace Dick – missed out on the job having fallen out of favour with Patel and Boris Johnson when he was prime minister. He had spoken in favour of positive discrimination to improve racial representation in the Met. Jon Boutcher, a former senior Met counterterrorism detective and chief of Bedfordshire police, had his application for Met commissioner rejected for consideration by the Home Office having spoken out against “racial disparity in policing”.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s Suella Braverman nightmare isn’t over]

Rowley, by contrast, was considered a solid choice by the government. He echoed their mantras on “back to basics policing” and suggested in an interview that police officers shouldn’t be taking the knee or wearing pride badges. He also rejects the conclusions of the Casey Review into the Met, in which it was found to be institutionally sexist, racist and homophobic.

Yet Braverman’s latest intervention suggests a breakdown in the relationship between the Met and the government. Labour, and many unsettled Conservatives, are blaming her political persona. It is true she is an unusual operator. She makes regular incendiary statements (“She’s mad,” as one government figure who worked closely with her put it to me). And she veers from the party line and collective cabinet responsibility whenever she likes (No 10, after all, has claimed her Times piece was not approved).

But really, she is voicing a more extreme version of what other, more mild-mannered ministers (including Sunak) have been saying about the Met: it needs to look closely and think carefully about the pro-Palestinian march.

Behind the Braverman-Rowley tension is a pattern in which governments attempt to politicise the police. (This is an irony noted by some police sources I’ve spoken to, given the recent preoccupation with “woke” police.) Under Theresa May as home secretary in 2012, the Conservatives brought electoral politics into policing by introducing police and crime commissioners (PCCs) – elected positions to represent police forces around the country. As Steve Hartshorn, a former Met firearms officer and head of the Police Federation, put it to me: “The Home Secretary has said she wants policing to be ‘politically impartial’. So are PCCs part of that future, given the vast majority of them are Conservative?”

As successive governments have obsessed over cracking down on protest, ministers have dragged the Met into their arguments – claiming police chiefs have been requesting further powers and then blaming them for not enforcing them enough once they’ve become law (particularly against Just Stop Oil actions).

The Conservative Party always wishes to appear tougher on crime: the latest example being five bills concerning criminal justice, investigatory powers and terrorism in the King’s Speech.

But this can lead it to clash with police: there is an assumption on the part of the “party of law and order” that police forces should do its bidding. (Perhaps this was why the 2012 “plebgate” scandal resonated – the idea of a Tory minister assuming a police officer would never stand in his way was symbolic of a broader attitude within government.) In 2009, the then deputy London mayor for policing, Kit Malthouse, boasted that the Conservative-run City Hall had its “hands on the tiller” of the Met and had “elbowed the Home Office out of the picture”.

Similarly, there is also a particular dismay among police when a Conservative home secretary is seen to undermine them – May being booed and heckled at a Police Federation conference in 2012, when defending cuts to forces, being one example of this.

It isn’t just a Tory thing, though. Under New Labour, which also focused on law and order (“tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”), the government was accused of politicisation by using the Met commissioner and other police chiefs to push for an extension in the detention of terror suspects to 90 days, and when the Met arrested the Tory shadow immigration minister over leaked official documents.

The position of the Met commissioner, answering to both the home secretary and London mayor, is a strange one. It can lead to political tensions and posturing, particularly if the two politicians are not aligned. Ian Blair, who held the post under a Labour government and Tory mayoralty described it to me as “one man, two guv’nors”.

“I just began to think: ‘We’ve got politicians here who have very fixed ideas on either side, and we’ve got a public that’s not really being consulted’,” he told me.

It can also lead to stasis and a loss of accountability. The reason it took Khan so long to end Dick’s disastrous tenure was because he was concerned about who the Conservative government would manoeuvre in to replace her.

Braverman may be confecting yet another culture war, but this battle has been running longer than her chaotic stint in the Home Office.

[See also: How much longer can Rishi Sunak tolerate Suella Braverman?]

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