Theresa May knows all about the pitfalls of speaking at the Police Federation but she is also well aware of how the conference can provide the perfect platform for underlining her leadership credentials. Back in 2012, the Home Secretary was booed, laughed at and made to speak in front of a sign which described government budget cuts as ‘criminal’. Last year, she accused the Federation of ‘crying wolf’ about finances. But her most memorable address to officers gathered at the annual Police Federation came in 2014, when she left the stage in silence – having stunned those gathered with her criticism of the police. She said that some in the police had ‘contempt for the public’ and went on to add that:
‘If there is anybody in this hall who doubts that our model of policing is at risk, if there is anybody who underestimates the damage recent events and revelations have done to the relationship between the public and the police, if anybody here questions the need for the police to change, I am here to tell you that it’s time to face up to reality.’
Whilst those in the audience didn’t like it, outside the conference hall it was a different story. May’s leadership credentials were confirmed. Bookies slashed odds on her succeeding David Cameron as the next leader. And the Telegraph’s Dan Hodges described what May had to say as ‘one of the most incredible speeches delivered by a British politician in wartime’. Looking back, it’s easy to dismiss those plaudits dished out at the time as exaggerated. And yet, two years on, Theresa May is still very much a frontrunner in the Tory leadership race. She might be less regularly put forward as an option than Boris or Osborne, but when the Prime Minister gives his backing as saying someone is up for doing their job, it’s a good time to listen. As Cameron was himself quoted in the Sunday Times this weekend saying: ‘Only three people can do my job: George, Boris and Theresa’.
Last week, May’s hiring of former Sky News deputy political editor Joey Jones was interpreted as her ‘tooling up’ for a possible leadership challenge, and it’s tricky to see such a move in any other way. As things stand, Theresa May is 6/1 to replace David Cameron – compared to Boris at 5/2 and Osborne at 5/1. But what we see on stage this morning in Bournemouth could go a long way towards determining how May’s part in that future Tory leadership battle will play out.