It’s been a good year for Theresa May and Chris Grayling. The Home Secretary has put Abu Qatada on a plane to Jordan, cut net immigration by a third and has managed, even while police budgets have been reduced, to oversee some quite dramatic falls in crime.
Meanwhile, the Justice Secretary has had a positive start to his tenure, with a string of positive announcements on restricting prisoner perks, reforms to improve the rehabilitation of prisoners and an increasingly hostile stance towards the European Court of Human Rights.
May’s wide-ranging police reforms are largely complete (a substantial achievement), while Grayling is so far dealing successfully with one of the most challenging budget settlements of any government department, without risking public safety.
Through it all, the Labour Party has been noticeably quiet, just as they have been on crime and immigration since 2010. Labour front-benchers have been unable to land a meaningful glove on the government despite mindboggling chaos at the UK Borders Agency, the summer riots of 2011 or Ken Clarke’s inadvisably soft rhetoric on sentencing.
All of this means that, in mid-term, the Conservatives consistently enjoy a healthy eight point lead over Labour on the issue of law and order. So shares in May and Grayling in Westminster are at a premium – but it’s far from clear whether their political and policy achievements will actually mean anything when it comes to the next election.
Crime is tumbling quickly down the list of voters’ concerns, with fewer than 10% of people now naming it as a key issue facing them or their family (roughly the same as the environment or Europe). The message that crime is falling substantially appears to be finally resonating with the public and, most importantly, matching their daily experiences.
On immigration, while the government is successfully reducing overall numbers, it has yet to receive any real credit from voters for doing so – and the flight to UKIP (in the polls, if not yet at the ballot box) is one symptom of this problem. But while it’s very likely that immigration will remain a big issue for voters (58% say it is one of the biggest issues facing the country), parties’ competing policies on immigration are unlikely to seriously affect the way people vote in 2015, with just 15% of the public naming it as a key issue facing their families.
Ironically, in cutting crime and reducing immigration so successfully, May and Grayling may be about to neutralise two big policy areas that have typically played to the Tories’ advantage. So how can the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary meet the pressing policy questions facing their departments and, at the same time, play their part in securing a majority for the Tories in 2015?
First, they should manage key risks. For example, the potential for a large, uncontrolled influx of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants in January is real and must be tackled with proper contingency arrangements to deal with pressures on public services and measures on benefits and entitlements to dissuade migrants from coming here without a realistic prospect of work. There is also risk in Grayling’s plans to privatise the probation service, with the near certainty that a criminal monitored by a private firm will commit a serious offence very early on in the implementation of the scheme. It will not matter to the press that murders, kidnaps and sexual offences occur almost every day under the current probation service.
Secondly, they should resist temptations to lurch to the right. With neither crime nor immigration likely to be election game-changers, there is little value (and, in fact, only downside) in new policies or pronouncements which threaten to damage the image of the Party or cement floating voters’ preconceptions about the Tories. So, vans driving round telling immigrants to go home, or 2005-style posters linking crime to immigration, should be junked.
Third, they should advance a positive agenda which will resonate with the public. Announcements such as a review of stop and search are a good start in efforts to reach out to ethnic minority voters, but there is much more the Tories could do to persuade people that the system is working for them. So a much more defined victims’ agenda should be part of a push to make the justice system faster, fairer and more transparent. And a programme of reforms to reduce the cost of, and need for, expensive legal representation in areas like the small claims court would show that the Government is backing small business and poorer families who are involved in painful disputes.
Fourth, they must focus on delivery. The Government’s flagship crime and justice reforms have been the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners, and the introduction of a Rehabilitation Revolution through payment-by-results. Policy Exchange has long argued that these reforms were vital for creating a more effective response to crime – and as we will contend in forthcoming reports, they must not only be seen through but should be protected, developed and nurtured through their early phases.
So, it’s been a positive year for the Government’s immigration and crime policies. And a good year for May and Grayling personally. But if these early successes are to translate into a lasting legacy, or contribute to the ultimate prize of an election victory, there is plenty more for them to be getting on with in the year ahead.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the September issue of Total Politics.