Theresa May’s Home Office record is normally off limits at cabinet. But when ministers discussed the government’s strategy for reducing violent crime on Tuesday, Boris Johnson took issue with what the Prime Minister regards as one of her key legacies: the dramatic reduction in stop and search. He argued that more stop and search was needed to deal with a spike in crime. What went unsaid — but what every-one around the cabinet table was acutely aware of — was that this was the opposite of Mrs May’s approach as Home Secretary.
The exchange was pointed. ‘They irritate each other,’ one cabinet minister observed to me afterwards. They also have form on these matters. They clashed on law and order when May was home secretary and Johnson was mayor of London and in charge of the capital’s policing. One secretary of state half-jokingly described the cabinet as a ‘water cannons retrospective’, a reference to Johnson’s irritation when May barred the Metropolitan police from using the ones he had bought after the 2011 London riots.
But this wasn’t just a clash of egos. Rather, it was a profound disagreement on how best to prevent crime. As one of those present put it to me: ‘Boris thinks stop and search is the answer; she thinks she stopped a national scandal.’ Johnson’s argument was that as London mayor he had found stop and search to be a hugely effective tool. He argued that it was one of the main reasons why London had had a falling knife crime and murders rate at a time when the capital’s population was growing.
May, though, is more sceptical. As Home Secretary, she toughened up the rules around the police’s use of stop and search, declaring in 2014 that the system was ‘unfair, -especially for young black men’. She warned that about a quarter of all stops that had been carried out the previous year were ‘probably illegal’, and threatened the police with legislation if they weren’t more restrained. At last year’s Tory conference, May claimed success. She said that following her changes, ‘the number of black people being stopped and searched has fallen by over two-thirds’.
She is right that there has been a dramatic drop in the number of all stops in recent years. It has gone from roughly 1.2 million in 2009 to around 300,000 last year. But it is less clear that this is something to be celebrated.
First of all, there is a question mark over whether it’s right that stop and search disproportionately affected black people. Alasdair Palmer, who worked for May at the Home Office, claims that the department’s own research showed this not to be the case, once you adjusted for who was present on the streets when the police were stopping and searching. But he says that May’s political team deliberately ignored this point.
Secondly, there is the fact that the dramatic fall in stop and search has coincided with a rise in crime. Figures out in January show a 14 per cent increase in police--recorded crime. Knife crime is up by even more, 21 per cent, as is gun crime, 20 per cent. In London alone, seven people have been killed in stabbings or shootings since last Wednesday.
This debate over stop and search is politically significant because crime, which had almost dropped off the political agenda, is back. In March 2016, the pollsters Ipsos-Mori found concern about it at a 25-year low. But with crime appearing to be rising again, the public are becoming more worried. Both Labour and Tory campaigners report that it is now being raised by voters on the doorstep in a way that it hasn’t been in years.
One wouldn’t have imagined -Jeremy Corbyn to be the kind of Labour leader who would embrace crime as an issue — a bit too Blairite for him, you’d have thought. But he is actually keen to push it up the -agenda. Labour were struck by how potent their attacks on the Tories for cutting police numbers were during the election campaign, and see an opportunity to argue that ‘austerity’ has made us all less safe. Also, by claiming that falling police numbers have led to a rise in crime, they can take aim at the Prime Minister’s record at the Home Office. It was telling that May, normally so comfortable talking about Home Office matters, tried to change the subject to the economy when Corbyn asked about crime at Prime Minister’s Questions last month.
Downing Street does privately acknowledge that it needs a defensive strategy on crime; it was the current Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, briefing the cabinet on a new strategy for reducing violent offences, which led to the exchange on stop and search. In fact, technology might provide an answer to the stop and search question that both May and Johnson can live with. The rollout of body cameras for the police makes it easier for them to demonstrate that they are using their powers in an appropriate manner.
But the Tories do need to do something on crime. The statistics are complex, making it hard to say with confidence what is happening. But the big increases in burglary and car crime, as well as the increase in violent crime, suggest that things are getting worse, not better.
It is hard to see how the spike in knife crime, which is claiming so many young lives and leading to a sense that the streets aren’t safe, can be addressed without an increase in stop and search. The tactic mustn’t be used in a heavy-handed manner. But the fall in its use, by three-quarters in under a decade, has clearly been excessive.
Theresa May told the cabinet on Tuesday that the police have all the powers they need when it comes to stop and search, and that the problem had been that it was being used illegally. But the recent spate of stabbings suggests that the police are now overly reluctant to use these methods.
The Tories are, traditionally, the party of law and order. But if they can’t halt the rise in crime, they risk losing that tag along with their reputation for competence.