Crime always pays for the Tories – that’s why they turn to it again and again

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<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

It is not difficult to see why Boris Johnson’s first post-isolation photo op was to appear alongside the home secretary, Priti Patel, and talk tough about crime. Ministers are keen to wrench the political argument towards a post-Covid domestic agenda. Yet there are fierce internal arguments in government about public spending, taxes, health and social care. What better way, meanwhile, to signal a return to supposed political normality than to reprise that old Conservative favourite, a dose of law and order?

There is also an immediate reason for that choice. July’s opinion polls have not been as good for the Tories as those of the spring. The lead over Labour, which was often double-digit in June, is mostly in single figures now, and was down from 13 points to four in YouGov’s survey last weekend. The decline of the earlier vaccine bounce seems to coincide with the messy ending of England’s Covid restrictions. A crime crackdown is a way of reassuring the voters that, whatever the appearance otherwise, the government really is in control.

Except that actually the government is not exercising control over crime. This week’s package is for show. To dignify it as a real anti-crime strategy is to miss the point of it, which is rhetorical. The object of the exercise was to create headlines and to frame public debate. Johnson duly obliged with his racially freighted remark that antisocial offenders should be “out there in one of those fluorescent chain gangs visibly paying [their] debt to society”. The headlines and the argument duly followed.

Related: Boris Johnson claims stop and search is ‘kind and loving’. He’s gaslighting Black people | Katrina Ffrench

In reality, the so-called “beating crime plan” that Johnson and Patel announced on Tuesday is not about doing anything innovative, difficult or expensive to address the problems of crime. It is about looking as if they are doing so. The plan is a rehash of old and existing ideas, such as more hi-vis clothing for community service offenders, electronic tagging on prison leavers and the relaxation of restrictions on stop-and-search powers, and very little else. It will not work because it has not been designed to work. It has been designed to be noticed.

The plan hasn’t even been discussed with the police, which is a giveaway about its lack of seriousness or content. On Tuesday, chief constables queued up to give the Guardian’s Vikram Dodd some scathing private judgments. “It is like there has been an explosion in a strategy factory,” said one. The Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers and which last week expressed no confidence in Patel over the latest police pay freeze, dismissed the whole thing as a gimmick.

You would never guess this from the way Johnson and Patel talk about crime and the police. “This government is utterly dedicated to fighting and beating crime,” Johnson announced. This is not actually true. What is true, however, is that British governments have long become addicted to doing what the American criminologist Jonathan Simon calls “governing through crime”, in which the sorts of measures that Johnson and Patel announced this week – often modest and even pantomimic by some American comparisons – are accepted as necessary responses to unacceptable public risks.

There are particular crime crises in Britain. These range from rape prosecution failures and child abuse scandals to the pandemic explosion of fly-tipping. Policing reform has also been allowed to wither on the vine. But if the Johnson government was as engaged with crime and policing as it claims, it would never have snubbed the police so conspicuously as it has done over pay, or made such deep cuts to the police and the criminal justice system more generally. Patel’s claim in the Daily Mail this week that “From day one as home secretary, I’ve made clear that I will back the police” does not withstand scrutiny in policy terms. But it makes total sense in terms of political theatre.

Related: ‘Weird and gimmicky’: police chiefs condemn Boris Johnson’s crime plan

Political campaigns like this are best described as performative cruelty, a policy-light approach whose central purpose is to savour the potential anguish of those it defines as threats. Donald Trump was a master of it; for him, the cruelty was all. Among all current British politicians, performative cruelty is also Patel’s particular stock in trade. It is to be found everywhere in her politics: in her approach to asylum seekers in the Channel, to the penal system and to crime. It is there in her approach to officials – a charge of bullying against her was shamelessly overridden by Johnson. It was there when she was international development secretary – a department whose role she made little secret of despising.

It is a reasonable bet that a framed copy of Tuesday’s Mail front page will soon be on display somewhere in her office. The headline – “Priti: I’ll make yobs clean the streets” – incarnates what she aims to achieve. It shows not just that the government machine mounted an effective bid for the public’s attention this week. It also shows that Patel has been granted the rare press accolade of being identified by her first name not her family name. It will certainly bolster her belief in the political rewards of performative cruelty. Where Maggie first trod, and Boris more recently followed, there now arrives, if she has anything to do with it, Priti.

Patel is not the sharpest pencil in the drawer. But she has the huge advantage of being focused on becoming Conservative leader. This singlemindedness would give her a considerable advantage if, over the coming months, the party becomes consumed with the possibility that Johnson may quit before the next general election. This is far from a certainty, and it is important not to believe every piece of gossip and to avoid wishful thinking. Nevertheless, the coming year may see the start of a leadership battle. And, in that battle, Patel will be a contender.

Patel would at present be an outsider in that contest. Her ratings among activists have declined this year compared with last. She would struggle to win as many nominations from MPs as Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Liz Truss. Some prejudice is also probable. But her popularity at the grassroots level is high. This week it will have got a little higher, not least because of her press support. If she has a big party conference success in the autumn, on which she will now be focused, it will rise again. Her chosen route to the leadership owes much to Johnson’s own. The question is whether the Tory party of the 2020s is willing to be defined by another ambitious populist and by the performative cruelty that Patel is making her own.

  • Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist

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