Nadine Dorries MP, in her piece on ConservativeHome this morning on how the LibDems have wrecked the PCC elections makes a couple of good points. The role would indeed be more substantial if it included impact on sentencing and detention, as Douglas Carswell MP and Daniel Hannan MEP had suggested in “The Plan”. Patience is a virtue, and this would have been a good time to reference the consultation on probation services at the moment, and the tussle within the government as to whether PCCs should commission these services.
She is also right to say that the 'hiring and firing' power that the Commissioner has with the Chief Constable is 'fraught with complications in the face of UK employment law'. All that stuff hasn't gone away, and PCCs and potential candidates would be wise to disabuse themselves of the notion that it has.
But this only goes to make her article into a mitigated disaster. I normally pay a little attention to what Nadine Dorries has to say. In fact I am so used to ConHome folk calling her 'Nadine', that I had to force myself to use the term 'Ms Dorries' below, which appears a less over-familiar way of talking about a lady MP I have never met, but I am afraid it will be difficult to avoid appearing rude when commenting on an article composed mainly of mistakes.
Let's start with the small stuff. She alleges that the LibDems stopped the elections from happening 'next May'. This is just plain wrong. The elections were due to be held last month, not next year, along with local elections that were hardly a triumph for the Conservatives, and where turnout was very low. Everyone knows the LibDems had a hand in moving the elections, but if what the Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission told us back in January is correct, the LibDems were pushing against an open door, as the late availability of election rules from the Home Office, which doesn't usually run elections, meant that the Government would not have been ready for last month anyway.
Ms Dorries appears to have missed the fact that in most areas the Liberal Democrats are not standing. Their alleged positioning of the election in order to secure a core vote makes no sense in this context. What has happened instead is that we have an election at an awkward time, with a need to get activists out on the doorstep yet again when the weather and failing daylight are not helping, but the positives should not be missed. This is an election about crime, a traditional Tory area of strength. This is a home game for the Tories and, with 'tough on criminals' figures such as Ken Clarke as Justice Secretary….oh well, maybe she has a point there.
Ms Dorries says that every one of the Conservative candidates chosen to date has been “selected from within the system, either as party activists or counsellors”. Counsellors? No doubt many are personable and have empathy, but does she mean 'councillors' perhaps, and has she missed Sir Clive Loader and Tony Hogg – ex-military types who have not spent decades as party activists? Does she harbour some contempt for those in the system, that gets people like her elected off the efforts of ordinary party members who freely give time, money and effort to the party because they believe in it? Yes, some of them are councillors.
Ms Dorries appears to miss the fact that Tim Collins had a reason to pull out from the Kent election, due to his demanding other commitments, or the fact that he controversially wanted to keep them, and goes on to mention that Michael Mates has been selected at the advanced age of 78. This is to demonstrate that the post is neither interesting or taxing, except that Mr Collins's example goes to show it is taxing, in that it will take time and effort he cannot spare, and let's not miss the point that her maths is bizarre. 78 plus the 3 and half years of office does not make him 84 at the time of the next such election. This suggests that the article was not properly checked by Ms Dorries before achieving publication.
But she's also wrong on the big stuff. She says 'The commissioner's primary function is to have the power to hire and fire a chief constable'. No. That's one power, but any commissioner who thinks the real way to get policing or indeed anything else delivering for the people is to shout at the top people and threaten them with the sack has really missed the point. This is about influence as much as it is about power, and powers to set the budget and the priorities for the force may not set the pulse racing, but they will get the job done. I suspect that in her heart of hearts she knows that having control of the purse strings is not bad going, and probably worth far more in the end than the ability to ditch a Chief Constable when you have to. Let me be clear – few people will have to.
Ms Dorries complains that the role would be more substantive if the Commissioner was responsible for crime prevention and reduction. If she wasn't in the habit of calling them 'police commissioners' perhaps she would have noticed the 'and crime' bit of the title, the fact that community safety commissioning is a chunk of the job, and the fact the Commissioner takes over the Home Secretary's powers to combine crime reduction partnerships. I'm slowly getting used to the idea that some candidates are not reading the law that created the post. Must I add to the list of non-readers of the legislation the actual MPs who voted for it?
Ms Dorries is concerned about press reports (in the Independent and Daily Mail) that the Home Secretary is lobbying the Treasury for cash for an advertising campaign to attract bright candidates to the posts. This story fits the narrative of critics of the new Commissioners, and perhaps has a grain of truth in that Ministers are probably irked that high-profile independents have not surged forward en-masse, but there are also problems with this story. The Conservative Party are in the final stages of selecting candidates. Are we to believe that a Conservative Home Secretary really wants to spend a lot of public money to make sure those people won't win in November? If she really did want that to happen, would she not instead have structured the elections so that candidate statements were included in the booklet that the Electoral Commission will be delivering to every household. Yes, I know it would cost more money, some of it public, and that the election timetable doesn't allow it, but who was willing to pay out for this flagship policy, and who set the timetable?
I have a wild idea. Let's not write off the election or the posts before they happen. Let's see how they go. If they go well, people like Ms Dorries risk looking silly tomorrow. Currently, she just looks silly today.