The theme of Priti Patel’s party conference speech this afternoon was very much ‘large and in charge’. She devoted much of her address to talking about the immigration system, as you’d expect, promising stronger crackdowns on people being smuggled across the Channel in boats.
Whereas Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have talked about Britain ‘voting for change’ in 2016, Patel focused on the Vote Leave favourite: taking back control. She told the conference hall this was the key theme of her reforms to immigration, saying: ‘My new plan for immigration is already making its way through parliament. At the heart of this plan is a simple principle. Control. That is not unreasonable.’
Other snappy slogans such as ‘turn back the boats’ followed. She repeatedly pledged that she ‘will act’ on criminals, disruptive protests and borders. On protest, she included a previously-rejected policy to crack down on demonstrations (no doubt prompted by the Insulate Britain action on the motorways), by giving the police and courts ‘new powers’. The government has presumably decided that if these cases end up in the courts, it’s a fight worth having.
The speech was naturally rather less political and punchy when it came to the section on Sarah Everard. Patel refused to name her murderer, and announced a new independent inquiry examining ‘what systematic failures enabled [Wayne Couzens’] continued employment as a police officer’. It will examine Couzens’ previous behaviour, including any opportunities missed to stop him, before moving onto wider issues around vetting practices, professional standards and workplace behaviour.
This is a much stronger response than the initial advice from ministers and the police to question officers’ validity. But it was also notable that Patel was keen to show she wasn’t picking a fight with the police. She argued that ‘it is because of our strong relationship with the police, that I can ask the difficult questions and support them to do better’. Last week, her shadow Nick Thomas-Symonds made a big thing of having the chair of the Police Federation in the audience for his speech. Both parties are keen to show that they are on the side of the police, the justice system and the victims. It’s a difficult balance to strike when the Everard case has left many women wondering if they can really trust the first two institutions.
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