Boris Johnson’s favourite boast on the leadership campaign trail was his success in bringing London’s murder rate down. Now in Downing Street, Mr Johnson is styling himself as the prime minister to restore the Tories’ reputation as the party for law and order.
In a flurry of commitments over the weekend, he promised 10,000 more prison places, enhanced stop-and-search powers for police and a pledge that hardened criminals will get “the sentences they deserve”.
These initiatives come on top of the 20,000 extra police officers announced straight after he took office. The question is whether this raft of new policies will have any impact, especially on the most problematic areas: soaring levels of knife and drug-related crime.
Justice campaigners are united in their conclusions that they will not. Introducing his justice initiatives in an opinion piece for the Mail on Sunday this week, Mr Johnson warned that “left-wingers will howl”.
But campaigners on the other side of the political spectrum have also expressed doubts. Charlotte Pickles, director of the right-of-centre Reform think-tank, and a former adviser to Tory grandee Iain Duncan Smith, described the new prime-minister’s approach as “knee-jerk” and “electioneering”.
“It feels as if we have gone back to the dark days of Prison Works,” she says, referencing the regressive policies of former Tory leader Michael Howard. “The aggregate sum of these announcements is clearly electioneering. It’s true that the public is worried about crime, but this looks like a thinly-veiled attempt to get back to being seen as the party of law and order. It’s a populist approach.”
The appeal to voters makes sense given that Downing Street has put itself on an election footing ahead of a possible poll this autumn. Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s most senior adviser, has set out crime as one of the public’s key concerns.
This is certainly borne out in recent data, which show crime as the third biggest issue for the British public after Brexit and the NHS. In polling by Ipsos Mori a quarter identified crime as the most important issue, up from 8 per cent when Theresa May took office three years ago.
Many senior Conservatives agree that the party needs to win back trust on law and order. Several party hardliners were aghast at the success of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in attacking the Tories for police cuts following the terror attack on Manchester Arena in 2017.
It was this attitude that was behind the decision to appoint Priti Patel, a figure on the hard right of the party, as home secretary. “Priti is much closer to the public’s views on crime than the Westminster group think,” one government official emphasised.
However, Ms Pickles fears the prime minister’s strategy fails to target the real issues. She points out there’s “very little evidence” that longer sentences have an impact on either deterrence or reoffending behaviour. “The only real difference is in the speed of justice — the passage from arrest to charge to conviction.”
The plan to provide 10,000 new prison places is already looking overambitious. Justice secretary Robert Buckland was forced to admit on Monday that only 3,500 extra prison places have so far been delivered out of the 10,000 more repeatedly pledged by his predecessors since 2015.
The £2.5bn allocated by Mr Johnson will only provide for capital costs, rather than the continuing revenue spending for extra prison officers, which is more significant long-term.
Frances Crook, head of the left-leaning Howard League for Penal Reform accused the prime minister of ignoring the costs. “It’s revenue spending for generations to come — prison officers, teachers, social workers,” she said. “It’s all hot air and the true costs haven’t been recognised. If this was real . . . it would take ten years and cost several times as much as has been allocated.”
Campaigners such as Ms Crook have also questioned whether the policies will revive public trust. She argues that the public’s most common experience of crime is online fraud — “bank accounts being ransacked and pensions taken”.
“None of this increase in stop and search or extra prison places is going to do anything to stop that,” she says. “You can whip up fear of these things, but your chances of being burgled or assaulted in the street are still extremely low.”
The suggested reforms to the controversial policy of stop and search, which allow officers to search individuals without any reason, could even be counter-productive.
Marian FitzGerald, visiting professor of criminology at the University of Kent, raises concerns that Mr Johnson’s enthusiastic promotion of this policy in London between 2008 and 2011 gave rise to a feeling that black and ethnic minorities were being unfairly targeted by the policy, which, she says, fuelled the London riots.
“Far from reducing knife crime, [this] approach further entrenched a problem which has become more intractable ever since,” Prof Fitzgerald said. By contrast, so-called section one searches focused on suspects where there is “reasonable grounds for suspicion” have historically resulted in the most weapons seizures, but are now in decline.
One of the most persuasive arguments against the Downing Street proposals is that they are not focused on penalising existing criminals more but rather on catching more offenders. The prison term for knife crime has risen by 60 per cent over the past decade but only 8 per cent of knife crimes have resulted in a charge or summons over the past year, compared to 30 per cent in 2012.
According to Ms Pickles, a better strategy would be targeted neighbourhood policing in areas hit hardest by crime, rather than blanket increases across the board. “Much of this isn’t deliverable,” she says, “and it’s not the right policy anyway”.