Speaking at the Police Federation conference is quite a tough gig. I should know: unexpectedly, in 2010 I found I was due to address the gathering immediately before Theresa May made her first outing as Home Secretary.
This was before “Plebgate”, but even then it wasn’t the most genial crowd I’d faced. The general aura was that of a group of people keenly aware they had the opportunity to give the new government its first negative headlines, if they so wished. A slow hand-clap was only a clumsy sentence away – and they might just decide to use me as a warm-up victim for the main event.
I put my head down and bulldozed through my speech, got half a laugh at the right time and managed to avoid being lynched by the assembled officers of the law – largely by ensuring that every time I said something they would find inconvenient or disagreeable I paired it with a criticism of the bureaucrats who load paperwork onto ordinary coppers.
May, by contrast, cleared her first hurdle as Home Secretary artfully – even managing to wring some applause out of them. She flattered, empathised and cajoled – knowing that her authority in the post could be severely dented by the wrong reception.
How times have changed. After the shocking events which put Andrew Mitchell out of a job, and the subsequent use of the scandal to make politicised arguments against the government’s reforms, the Federation is not the big beast it once was. It still has the members, it still has a pile of cash, but there is a murky stain on its credibility – and the whole affair is still not yet out in the open.
It’s in that context that the Home Secretary returned today to deliver her annual speech. Instead of being at risk of a mauling, by all accounts she dealt one out – the political equivalent of a Christian in the Colosseum biting the lions.
Not only did she reiterate the threat of legislation to reform the Federation if it fails to reform itself, she went further: all of its taxpayer funding – previously £190,000 a year – is to be stopped.
As the TaxPayers’ Alliance have said in response to the news, this is the right decision for the public finances. Taxpayers’ money should not be used to subsidise trade unions (and regardless of the niceties, that is what the Federation has become), particularly trade unions who have large financial reserves. The money will instead be used to boost police recruitment among graduates, which is a much better use for it.
I’m sure May didn’t say it out loud, but there is of course another story here. The Police Federation has behaved shamefully in recent years, apparently in the mistaken belief that it could do what it liked to the Government and nothing would happen in return. One can easily imagine that having agreed that it was logical to stop the funding, Ministers might also have felt there was a certain sense of justice arising from the decision, too.