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If an outsider doesn't get a top police job, we'll know Cameron's not serious about reform

By Paul Goodman
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Police David Cameron's political life is chockfull of Defining Moments.  But on policing and prisons, this really is one.  As this morning's papers confirm, he will finally deliver his long-delayed "big speech" on criminal justice this week.  I'm not one to claim that speeches don't matter: as he proved outside Downing Street last week, they can sometimes matter very much.  But this one will mean little if it isn't followed up by one very specific action.

However finely-framed it may be, criminal justice policy can't work without effective police leadership.  It's been plain since before the riots that the Prime Minister believes that the present crop of Chief Constables isn't up to the job.  He wanted Bill Bratton to be able to apply for the job of Met Commissioner.  Theresa May opposed the idea.  So he's settled for appointing Bratton as an adviser.  Today, Sir Hugh Orde, in his third assault on Cameron in as many days, knocks the man who helped restore law and order to New York.

It's worth noting that other Chief Constables haven't rushed to back him up, and that - however strange it may seem - this is part of Orde's way of pitching for the leadership of the Met.  But his casual sideswipe at one of the most successful policemen in the western hemisphere is evidence of a deep problem.  The essence of Orde's view is that the police got it right on the riots and have nothing to learn from abroad, thank you very much.  But Tim Godwin has conceded that, for the first two days last week, the police got it wrong.

James Forsyth argues today that "Cameron needs to call May on Monday and tell her to let Bratton send in his CV".  It may well be that there are home-grown candidates even more suited to leading the Met: Forsyth mentions Bernard Hogan-Howe, the current temporary deputy commissioner of the Met; the other name that keeps coming up is Stephen House, the Chief Constable of Strathclyde.  But Forsyth is right: if Bratton is up to the job - which he certainly is - why should he be barred from applying for it?

The long and short of it is that if Bratton, or another gifted contender from outside the closed circle of Chief Constables, isn't appointed to run a major police force within the next year or so, we will know that the Prime Minister isn't serious about police reform.  Some, like my friend Daniel Hannan, are sceptical about intervention from Whitehall and place their eggs in the basket of elected sherriffs (a.k.a commissioners).  So it's worth bearing in mind that we already have some, and taking a look at how they are getting on.

London has Boris, and his performance last week was less than glorious.  Middlesbrough has Ray Mallon, and his Chief Constable is currently caught up in a corruption investigation.  Hannan might well counter that localism means risk, that local sherriffs could scarcely do worse than national politicians, and that the more accountable to local people the sherriff is, the better the results will be.  I agree, which is why I've argued that the proposed areas for police commissioners are too large to offer a sense of local police ownership.

Which takes me back to where I started.  Only Parliament can decide how big these areas are to be.  Only Cameron, acting in concert with his Home Secretary and the Cabinet, can set the tone for how his Government believes policing should work in Britain (since localism entails electing a commissioner, not a Chief Constable).  But for him, deciding whether or not to push for Chief Constables from abroad - and, I'll add hopefully, smaller police forces and more commissioners - means making a very big choice.

Team Cameron contains within it two different views of what this Government should do.  The first is George Osborne's: its aims should be limited, even minimalist, concentrating on deficit reduction, and public service reform that's either popular with voters (welfare reform) or achievable in a single term (schools reform in the shape of the large-scale expansion of academies).  The second is Steve Hilton's: the Prime Minister should aim to change more or less everything.  The Government should be maximalist.

This is why Hilton threw his energies behind Andrew Lansley's original vision for NHS reform.  So the question for Cameron is: when it comes to policing, which vision is it - Osborne's or Hilton's?  It's important to grasp what would follow from choosing the latter.  Theresa May would surely have to be reshuffled, since she clearly believes that, with both a big scaleback in the police budget and the introduction of commissioners to implement, she must work with the instincts of Britain's police leadership, not against them.

Her replacement would, so to speak, be a Lansley - that is, someone whose instincts favour radical reform.  This would probably mean Michael Gove or Iain Duncan Smith.  If the Prime Minister was determined to appoint the police leadership's most stringent critic, he would send for David Davis.  However, I suspect that Cameron hasn't forgotten that quixotic by-election, and would steer clear of bringing back his former leadership rival.

But whoever was appointed would doubtless demand a bigger budget as a quid pro quo.  Which would mean a tussle with the Chancellor.  Which would be a mere warm-up for a bigger row with ACPO.  Which would be supported by its allies in the Home Office.  All accompanied by the drama of the early reshuffle which the Prime Minister has striven to avoid.  I wouldn't blame him for seeking to avoid all this, let May work with the police leadership she's got, and concentrate on reversing the indefensible cut in prison places.

So let's be clear: it's all very well for Cameron to make speeches and for others to demand radical police reform now.  Let's all go for that if it's what we really want.  But let's do so with our eyes open, knowing what it will mean - namely, giving police reform the same political priority as welfare and education reform, moving towards smaller police forces, taking on the Chief Constables, and driving a new programme through under a different Home Secretary.  On police reform, it's either all of this...or very little indeed.

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