As predicted, Labour did make use of the Times’s story about Theresa May’s row with the Prime Minister over stop-and-search at PMQs today, using a backbench question from Steve Reed, who explicitly linked to Cameron’s ‘fear of Nigel Farage’. David Cameron gave a rather mollifying answer, telling the Commons that ‘stop-and-search does need reform’ and that ‘what’s really important is that stop-and-search is used properly but we don’t add to the burdens of the police’.
It’s interesting, this fear of Ukip business, mainly because Theresa May had seen her review of stop-and-search as a key modernising moment for the Conservatives, and she initially enjoyed positive headlines about her party’s appeal to the ethnic minority groups who feel victimised by the way the police use the power currently. There was particular excitement last summer over a front page of black newspaper The Voice, which splashed on whether Labour was losing the black vote, while praising the Home Secretary for her ‘rare acknowledgement of racial discrimination’. But an attempt to appeal to one group of voters who have long-held suspicions about the Conservatives seems to be being trumped by the need to appeal to a group of former Conservatives who are currently suspicious about whether the party is robust enough on matters such as law-and-order.
But there is another interesting dimension to this row. That it was splashed across the Times this morning has excited some Tory MPs who think that there is jostling at the top of the party in case of any leadership challenge later this year if the party manages its European elections performance badly. This sounds like a very fevered way of looking at things, as the party is going to do badly, and the question is really how well can it talk up Ukip so that the performance of Farage’s party ends up looking like a disappointment, while keeping backbenchers calm. Some of the more sanguine Eurosceptics certainly think their colleagues are getting a little over-excited to be talking about leadership challenges. But others observe to me that Theresa May and Chris Grayling in particular have recently been having more backbenchers in for meetings, and visiting different Conservative groups. Lower down, Adam Afriyie is still apparently trying his luck, too, although even a sympathetic backbencher chuckles that ‘it’s going a bit far to say he’s got a power base’.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.