If the speech was shocking, the reaction as Theresa May retook her seat in the Bournemouth International Centre on Wednesday was scarcely less so.
Politicians are used to hostile receptions, home secretaries addressing the annual conference of the Police Federation more than most. May has been heckled and booed by members of the federation, which represents 126,000 serving officers; she has even, two years ago, been forced to deliver her speech in front of a banner displaying the word "criminal". But never before has an address of its kind been greeted by a stunned, near total silence.
The police had to "face up to reality", she told them, and if they didn't reform themselves she would change the law to do it for them, imposing a series of drastic changes including cutting off all their public funding. Little wonder mouths were hanging open.
Outside the hall, the reaction was rather different. It was "one of the most incredible speeches delivered by a British politician in peacetime", according to the Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges. It was "arguably the most aggressive act by central government towards the police rank and file" in a century, Martin Kettle suggested in the Guardian. "Good grief: what a speech," wrote the legal blogger David Allen Green.
There is no doubt that in choosing this week to mount an audacious challenge to the power of the Police Federation, May was aided by events. A litany of police failures including Leveson, Ian Tomlinson and Hillsborough – the home secretary took more than a minute to read a lengthy list, staring with steely eyes around the hall – have given her political cover. Plebgate has undermined support for the police among her Tory colleagues. With members having already overwhelmingly accepted the need for change, federation insiders say she was pushing at an open door.
"One could argue that they got beaten by a piece of 4x2," says Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, "but it's a shame there wasn't a recognition in the speech that she was urging the implementation of a review that they had commissioned."
To admirers, May's speech was indicative of a boldness that is rarely seen as a handicap at the highest levels of politics. The Telegraph's Benedict Brogan called her the "hammer of the cops". The Spectator's Fraser Nelson said she was "the tiger woman who rips her enemies to shreds". Andrew Haldenby, director of the thinktank Reform, said: "I do think Theresa May stands out as the great reformer of this parliament" – noting that she had not backed down in the face of opposition, as Andrew Lansley did over the NHS, while unlike Michael Gove's ringfenced education budget, May had brought about significant change while her budget was cut by 25%.
Within hours of her speech William Hill had made May its favourite, at 4-1, to succeed David Cameron as the next Tory leader, leapfrogging Boris Johnson, George Osborne et al.
They were not the only ones to consider that May had more in her sights on Wednesday than policing reform. She swats away talk of leadership ambitions, but Westminster insiders are clear that she has begun subtle and not-so-subtle manoeuvres to put herself next in line. A speech a year ago was seen as highly significant – and earned May a rebuke from Michael Gove for disloyalty to Cameron. Though seen as chilly and not particularly clubbable, May is said to have become more active in meeting colleagues and journalists, while careful never to do anything so crude as expressing open ambitions. Cameron himself, indeed, is said by one colleague to "adore" her.
In no little measure, this is thanks to May's quiet effectiveness. Succeeding to the post as the sixth home secretary in less than six years, she has knuckled down and got on with the job. A clue to her approach may lie in her frequently professed admiration for Geoffrey Boycott. "I have been a Boycott fan all my life," as she once put it. "He kind of solidly got on with what he was doing."
The Boycott approach of putting her head down at the crease and notching up cautious runs has served her well in office. Close observers describe her as a "Whitehall warrior" – working 18-hour days and insisting on seeing every piece of paper that goes through her office, taking even minor decisions usually left to civil servants. The micromanaging approach is complemented by the iron rod with which her special advisers, Fiona Cunningham and Nick Timothy, rule her department. She has notched up some notable successes, in particular succeeding in the extradition of Abu Hamza to the US where a string of Labour home secretaries had failed. His conviction in a Manhattan court this week has done her reputation no harm.
She rarely engages with journalists outside strictly circumscribed topics and retains a scrupulous privacy over her personal life, which makes very notable indeed her few interviews – in which the 57-year-old has self-consciously opened up about her love of cookery books, her regret at not having children with her City-worker husband Philip ("it just never happened, things just turned out as they did") and, most recently, the fact that she suffers from type 1 diabetes. The revelation of her health problems was to dispel rumours she was losing weight to prepare for a leadership bid, she indicated, though the cosy chat in her Berkshire kitchen – a rite of passage for those seeking to humanise their image – did little to quell mutterings.
She also talked about her love of shoes: the fascination with May's kitten heels irritates those who feel it trivialises her achievements, but her fashion choices, while always tasteful and appropriate, remain just a little showy. A woman who wants only her speech to be noticed does not wear crystal embellished patent flats to the party conference podium.
Critics question whether May has really succeeded in taming a Home Office that came to be viewed as a graveyard of political careers. While her remit remains daunting, the stripping out of prisons and creation of the Ministry of Justice made the department much more manageable. "Had that not happened she would currently be under attack for all the escaped prisoners wandering around," notes one well-placed observer. Tory believers may insist on the value of police and crime commissioners, but with an embarrassingly low turnout at their elections, the policy is seen by others as a conspicuous failure. And there remains the question of immigration, where it is widely accepted she will almost certainly fail to meet her target of reducing inflow below 100,000 by the time of next year's election. Annual net immigration is running at 212,000, and in the aftermath of a Ukip battering at the polls, this will remain an achilles heel for May and her government.
A bigger problem for any leadership bid, say observers, is that she does not have an obvious cabal of supporters, and some doubt whether she has the interpersonal skills to attract the necessary cheerleaders. One observer described a possible Johnson-May face-off as being a case of "blond versus bland".
But an approving Daily Mail observed that while "gimmick-loving Mr Cameron" was buying cakes for Johnson in a photo-op, "gimmick-free May" was facing down the police. "The notoriously serious-minded Mrs May (she does not do small talk or humour) is emerging as a formidable politician who actually makes things happen," noted the paper. If she finds herself bidding for the top job, the Mail is not a bad ally.
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