Priti Patel's reaction to the ugly scenes on Clapham Common on Saturday has been to point the finger. ‘Some of the footage circulating online from the vigil in Clapham is upsetting. I have asked the Metropolitan Police for a full report on what happened', she has said. But do we really need to wait for a report to work out what has happened?
Perhaps, instead, the truth is rather simpler: the police were enforcing laws put into places by Priti Patel's own government. Of course, there is some debate as to whether officers should have exercised more judgement in the applications of these laws. On this point, though, Patel has been clear: there should be no ifs or buts in the way officers enforce lockdown rules.
Back in January, the Home Secretary defended a strict crackdown on Covid rule breakers:
'Our police officers are working tirelessly to keep us safe. Not only are they continuing to take criminals off our streets, but they are also playing a crucial role in controlling the spread of the virus...There is still a need for strong enforcement where people are clearly breaking these rules to ensure we safeguard our country’s recovery from this deadly virus. Enforcing these rules saves lives. It is as simple as that'
Two months on though, when it is politically convenient for Patel to do so, she has distanced herself from the application of that approach of 'strong enforcement'. Police officers might be forgiven for being confused.
It's true that it is possible to have some nuance in this messy debate. The Home Secretary could think that stricter measures were needed at the beginning of the year, but that having people gather on Clapham Common with masks on to hold a vigil for a woman murdered when the government is in the process of winding down restrictions anyhow is okay. That’s a defensible position.
The problem is Priti Patel hasn’t put forward this stance. Instead, there has been a confusing set of calls from the Home Secretary to look into police behaviour on Clapham Common without any reference back to what she has called for in the recent past.
It's important not to let the Met Police off the hook for the action of some of its officers. But at the very least, it is clear that the advice they have been given from the Home Office has been bewildering. This haziness has resulted in one of the worst aspects of the policing of protests during the Covid crisis: the inconsistency of enforcement.
Take the way the Black Lives Matter protests were policed last summer. Despite the country being in lockdown at the time, thousands of protestors flooded the streets in many major British cities. There was a distinctly hands-off approach by the cops, which was heavily criticised at the time, particularly after a statue was toppled in Bristol.
On one hand, it was understandable that the police didn’t want to be seen clashing with people on a protest against police violence; on the other, it left them open to the critique that there was political bias involved in their handling of these events.
This inconsistency makes the approach to the Clapham Common vigil over the weekend all the more baffling. Again, a public demonstration is held where there are specific sensitivities as to how the police want to be seen. And yet this time officers go in heavy-handed. On anti-lockdown protests last summer there was similar scenes as officers robustly enforced the rules.
Here the Home Office has to shoulder some of the blame. Priti Patel in particular needs to explain why she thinks the events that took place on Clapham Common on Saturday contravene what she has said to police before in terms of a ‘strong enforcement’ of the rules. Patel can’t call for police to be involved in a nationwide crackdown on gatherings and then complain about those crackdowns when they happen – at least not without some explanation about why the Clapham Common vigil should be an exception to the rules.
We are in a sensitive period, both for the management of the disease and for the government’s approval rating. The inconsistency of police enforcement does neither of these things any good. The Home Secretary must lead from the front on this. At the moment, she's missing in action.
An independent probe into what happened on Clapham Common on Saturday might offer us some useful answers. But in the mean time, if Priti Patel wants to understand where policing in Britain has gone wrong since the start of the Covid crisis, she should look in the mirror.