Knife crime: Cameron’s pre-election lies and subsequent betrayal

by Matt Cavanagh

Five years ago, shortly after he became Conservative leader, David Cameron made a speech in which he called on politicians to “stop making incredible promises that the public do not believe they will keep”. He announced a “taskforce” that would help him sort out this problem. The man he asked to chair it was Ken Clarke.

Last week, Ken Clarke’s department released figures showing how he and Cameron are getting on with one particular promise Cameron made loudly and often while in opposition: that anyone caught carrying a knife would go to jail.

In fact, Clarke had already let slip back in December that this promise had been abandoned. But the latest figures show that, never mind everyone caught carrying a knife going to jail, in fact, a smaller proportion are going to jail now than under Labour. This was greeted with predictable outrage by the Sun, Telegraph and others who have campaigned for tougher sentences on knife crime.

Tory MPs have also reacted angrily, blaming either Clarke, the Liberal Democrats, or the judges. But on this issue, the blame must go to the top. Back in 2008, it was David Cameron who personally led the Conservatives’ attack on Labour’s response to the moral panic over knife crime then gripping the country. He encouraged the media and the public to believe it was the job not of judges but of politicians, and in particular the prime minister, to ensure that people caught carrying a knife were getting the punishment they deserved. He made his position clear in July 2008, in an exclusive interview with the Sun: “anyone caught carrying a knife will be jailed under a Tory Government, David Cameron vows today. The Conservative leader declares automatic jail terms for carrying a dangerous knife is the only way of smashing the current epidemic gripping broken Britain”.

The same message was carried right across the national media: a brief online search throws up the Telegraph (“David Cameron has said Conservative government would fight Britain’s knife crime epidemic by automatically jailing all knife criminals”), the Daily Record (“Tory leader David Cameron said: ‘If you are carrying a knife and you are caught, you should expect to go to prison. Plain, simple, clear’”), the Guardian, Evening Standard, Metro and others.

To reinforce the message, Cameron courted the relatives of high-profile victims, promising them personally that a Conservative government would bring in tougher sentences for carrying a knife. In November 2008, the Sun set up a meeting between Cameron and the father of Damilola Taylor. Mr Taylor put to him: “Everyone agrees we need to stop youngsters carrying knives. But most of the time when they appear in court, they get off scot free. It’s not good enough. They should go to jail”. Cameron agreed: “We have to send out a really clear message that carrying a knife is wrong. If you carry one and you get caught, you go to prison”. Eighteen months later, when the Conservatives unveiled their star “third-party-endorser” for one of Cameron’s last speeches of the general election campaign, it was the former EastEnders star, Brooke Kinsella, who had lost her brother in a knife murder. She was very clear why she was endorsing Cameron, saying: “Sadly, although I think [Labour] care, I do not think they have done enough. I’m not that knowledgeable about politics and I don’t pretend to be. I do think that David Cameron and the Conservatives will do this. Their policies on knife crime seem to be the toughest”.

Once David Cameron and the Conservatives were in government, they quietly dropped their promise on knife crime. There was no explanation; no apology. The proportion of those caught carrying a knife who are sent to prison is falling. Tory apologists like Policy Exchange’s Blair Gibbs are reduced to arguing that Cameron didn’t say that everyone caught carrying a knife would actually go to jail – if you look closely at Cameron’s words, they claim, he only said they should “expect” to go to jail. Well – sometimes. And anyway this is either dishonest, or spectacularly missing the point. Reviewing the earlier media coverage, it is impossible to deny that David Cameron wanted people to believe he was committed to ensuring that everyone who was caught carrying a knife would go to jail – indeed the coverage shows that he was extremely successful in getting this message across.

It is inevitable that politicians make promises in opposition which they then break in government. Inevitable, but damaging, and most sensible politicians realise that they have both a personal and a collective reason to keep this to a minimum. This is what Cameron pretended to grasp in that 2006 speech. The way Nick Clegg has been destroyed over tuition fees should have driven the point home. Clegg tried to use the same excuses as the Tories have used over knife crime: the fact that it’s a coalition, and the pretence that the fiscal position is worse than they thought when they made the promise. While these arguments have worked on some issues for both parties, neither worked for Clegg over fees, and nor should they work for Cameron over knife crime.

This was not some promise he was forced into; it was not some throwaway line. It was a strategy he deliberately adopted, something he chose to highlight repeatedly in interviews in the country’s biggest-selling newspaper, something he reiterated in big speeches in his election campaign. And yet he doesn’t look like he’s even tried to stick to it. It is simply not credible to believe that if Cameron insisted on tougher sentencing for knife possession – specifically for knife possession, not for all offences – this would be vetoed by his coalition partners, or by George Osborne on affordability grounds.

Ed Miliband has argued that Labour shouldn’t try to “out-right the right” on crime, in particular on sentencing. But that doesn’t mean that Labour should allow the right-wing media to run the debate, and to channel people’s anger at the judges, at the Lib Dems, or at Ken Clarke. This was a high-profile personal promise made by Cameron, and unless he is big enough to say – I admit it, I was wrong, I was foolish, I was opportunistic, the approach Labour announced and I attacked was in fact the right one and that’s why I’m continuing it – Labour should keep on ramming it down his throat.

Politics is a rough game. But Cameron’s cynicism over knife crime is exceptional even by political standards. At a time when people were genuinely worried, David Cameron deliberately set out to stoke and then exploit their fears. He told them the problem was getting worse when in fact it was getting better. He promised them a solution, tougher sentencing, which he knew that they believed in, while having no real commitment to seeing it through. He did this not only to the mass of voters, but to the families of victims. Labour doesn’t have to agree with the solution he promised, to give him a hard time for the cynical way he promised it, and the careless way he has betrayed people’s trust.

Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser on crime under the last Labour government.

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3 Responses to “Knife crime: Cameron’s pre-election lies and subsequent betrayal”

  1. iain ker says:

    I sincerely hope we have left behind us this blair/cabinet of lawyers attitude that it was the precise words that mattered not their spirit, and I have no truck whatsoever with anyone falling back on the precise definition of the word ‘expect.’

    And yes, every knife carrier should be sent to jail.

    But of course it was TUCLabour’s time in government that saw knife crime explode. And why? Because the punishment for carrying a knife was often less than the punishment for putting a parking ticket upside down on your windscreen. Sometimes for carrying a knife the punishment did not even stretch to a caution. Madness, utter madness.

    I once heard a TUCLabour MP argue that there should be a reduced * reduced ! * penalty for knife-carriers who were ‘in genuine fear’. Poor mites.

    So no lecturing to us, please, from TUCLabour, The Party of the Knife-Carrier

  2. Andrew McKie says:

    Cameron was wrong, and the Labour party’s policy, at least in Scotland, was just as stupid. Evidence for which can be found here:

    and also here:

  3. horatio says:

    None of them give two hoots about real people and their issues, they just pander to business, the real leaders of our country. Politics becomes increasingly more irrelevant by the day. All we get from them is empty rhetoric and false platitudes about the plight of the ordinary British citizen. I have a freind who was recently stabbed several times for no real reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time (I live in Mid Wales). The Police did not find a weapon and the perpetrator got off scott free! The joke of it all is that even if he did serve a prison sentence he would have got HD television, playstaion 3, Three hot meals a day and when he got out they would give him grants and a place to live. Labour got it all wrong when it comes to justice. However this occurred two weeks ago. On a differnet note, as for the current economic mess that was apparantly inherited by the new government, I would just like to say, would have occured under the Tories as Labour was using their fiscal policies, as we all know Tony Blair was no socialist and whilst exercising these policies the Conservatives wholehertadly supported them. We are constantly sold down the river by lying politcians and their corrupt media supporters, The way that money is created is the reason we are in such a mess as it is inherently inflationary, new money takes value from the exsisting cash, so recessions will always occur regardless of the media lies about the causes, because the are built into the system itself( check out Modern Money Mechanics as issued by the Federal Reserve, the model which all centralized banks operate on). I know you will probably think I am a looney left winger or an anarchist but i gave up on politics years ago, the same reason MOST of the country dont exercise their votes anymore. When politcians actually do the job they are meant to instead of propping up captalism and invading countrys for their resources then you might actually get a politically motivated population, However you know this is not going to occur anytime soon. And from what I have read of your journalism Mr Mckie, you seem to think that Gordon Brown and the Labour party were responsible for a GLOBAL economic downturn. I would like to know exactly how The Policies of Great Britain seemed to effect the entire globe all on the same day? I wonder what your politcal persuasion is? if the Tories are more effective at their jobs then how do you explain the economic down turns in the eighties and the highest unemployment in our history, its probably the fault of the previous Labour government. All politcians are corrupt, Cam and Murdoch, Blair and Murdoch and dont say Brown and Murdoch because I remember the Suns reporting about him and it was anything but nice! My personal opinion about your journalism is the same as any other, you will say anything for money. I imagine you dont really care about any of this anyway because if you did you wouldnt publish the dishonest tripe that you do. STOP LYING TO THE BRITISH PUBLIC! we all know that you talk nonsense so why do you bother.

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