HIGH NOON IN PENRITH
High noon in Penrith. The distant siren of a police car somewhere on the M6. In the high street, a beat-up blue tractor rumbles by, depositing two tyre tracks of fresh cow muck.
It proper catches the back of your throat.
I tie up my horse outside The George Hotel and bod on in. I love the George. It’s all 19th century low ceilings, thick shag pile, chandeliers and dark varnish.
“Olde worlde charm meets modern hospitality”. Not a skinny Frappe in sight. With some luck they’ll have a zero-tolerance policy towards Mobile Phones.
I’m here for a quarterly shoot out. A meeting upstairs in the grand ballroom of the Cumbria Police and Crime Panel.
POLICE AND CRIME PANEL
This cross-party committee of ten county and district councillors doesn’t get together very often.
And when it does, it’s with the sole purpose of pitchforking Peter “Quick Draw” McCall, the Tory police and crime commissioner for Cumbria.
The political sub-plot here is how can all the opposition councillors subtly make it appear that Peter and his party is personally responsible for every criminal act committed in the county?
Especially when the Local Press is in. Because we can puff these things up into News Balloons and send them sailing out of this wide open window…into print and on social media.
One of the Labour committee members is so grateful for my showing up that he absent-mindedly thanks me three times as I join the queue for coffee.
“It’s always good to have The Reminder along for a meeting,” he smiles, getting the name of the newspaper wrong.
I let it slide and focus on my deep breathing techniques.
The room is too stuffy but the crime commissioner’s Comms director kindly agrees to push my desk towards a large open window.
A little too eagerly, some might say.
Ten councillors should be on the police and crime panel for the barbecuing of Quick Draw.
But by the time the grandfather clock chimes for the start, five members of the committee have failed to show.
Missing are two Labour councillors (both Barrow), two Tories (one South Lakes, the other Carlisle) and an Independent representing the little-known West Cumbrian hamlet of Eh.
These councillors were elected only a few short weeks ago and already some are giving the first meeting of the new term the big swerve.
What the hell is going on in Local Government, I thunder into my notepad. We’re barely quorate here.
But then I realise that this is Cumbria in mid- summer and the sun is shining. Everyone’s entitled to a day on the sun lounger.
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN TONGUE
At the start of the meeting, Labour’s Steve Bowditch, from Carlisle, is quickly voted in as new chairman.
Peter McCall, at the other end of the table, addressed Steven for the first time.
“May I congratulate you on your recent…elevation,” McCall drawled, faintly raising an eyebrow and doing his best Roger Moore.
Peter is ex-Army but the impression he radiates is of a sophisticated Army charmer rather than a shaven-headed, door-pounding Sgt Major-type.
He’s 60-years-old, average height with a good thatch of hair which has not yet gone grey.
Give it time.
Peter was trained to survive in environments where friction, chaos, chance and uncertainty are an every day part of life.
Perfect for a political post in Cumbria!
TO BE FRANK
I noticed very early in the meeting that Peter repeatedly uses the words “clearly” and “frankly”.
Frankly, it was clear to me and the committee after 10 minutes of him speaking.
He runs five miles a day and plays acoustic guitar for his local church, often taking his show on the road.
On Sundays, he becomes Banjo Billy, a toe-tapping, knee-slappin, god-fearin country man. He has rocked many a church hall of this parish with his wild, evangelical, hand-clapping bluegrass.
When the vicar is not about, Peter is known to whip out a long, slender electric Fender and then hook it up to a 10ft-amp.
Blasting out tongue licks of Van Halen’s “Eruption” until every last stained glass window is shattered.
Peter isn’t a corporate robot (yet). Peter drives the fastest milk cart in the west (he got nicked for speeding down south last year). It was 30-something in a 30-mph zone.
I tried to get excited about it in Print but no-one else did. Ho hum.
He isn’t too guarded with the Press (yet), which makes him virtually unique in Cumbrian high office. Peter is not scared of chucking us a fish.
But Maverick is too strong a word because he would not want to mess this job up in the way that “chauffeur-gate” messed it up for Richard Rhodes.
Although he prides himself on being direct, some of Peter’s sentences become knotted with sub-clauses and over qualifications.
The occasional “hitherto” creeps in and I can’t remember the shorthand outline for that. It being the 18th century the last time anyone said the word hitherto at a public meeting.
Later in the meeting, he drops a John Majoresque “notwithstanding” into the conversation.
It caused Labour’s Celia “Seaton” Tibble to rapidly blink five times in frustration.
On future funding for police…always a raw nerve for the Tories…McCall is prepared to stick his neck out beyond the safe party line…
“If you were to ask me to speculate,” he drawls, (no-one asked him to speculate).
“I would say the police funding formula review is unlikely to proceed in the short term.”
Yippee. Peter is not afraid to look into the crystal ball.
We are not used to this level of self-disclosure on the Press Bench.
These days, we’re fed a soul-crushing diet of non-controversial, cut-n-paste, box-ticking town hall bollocks with absolutely no headline value whatsoever.
But Peter is comfortable in skin and status and says what he likes, rather than what he is advised.
“I don’t stay it glibly,” he tells the crime panel, “but I am in charge.”
Peter thinks having a £91,000-a-year chief executive is an “unnecessary bureaucracy,” which appears to horrify one of the co-opted committee Yodas, who pulls an injured face.
But Peter’s soon-to-retire chief executive, seated beside him, did not blink.
It was like watching a lizard on a hot stone when a hawk flies over. He didn’t flinch.
He radiated the inner calm of a man who has seen his final pension figures and has one eye on the world cruise brochures, and finally putting in that third bathroom.
Peter told the panel that his office is too “hierarchical” which is town hall-speak for too many chiefs, not enough, er, native Americans.
Infact he wouldn’t have a chief executive at all unless the law required it, he said, pointedly. He wants to keep police numbers and PCSOs, but share back office services, like IT, with the likes of Durham.
“The thin blue line, frankly, is already too thin and getting thinner,” he says.
This is pretty dynamite copy.
Another of Peter’s recurring pains in the backside is complaints about the non-emergency 101 service.
If you don’t know it, the 101 service is a direct hotline to the Desk Rozzers. Aka the Phone Police. Get me DCI Paper Clips on the double!
Personally, I’ve never had a problem using the 101 telephone line. Which is an uncomfortable truth for someone who has to tell everyone it doesn’t always work.
“101 is probably the bug bear of my life,” Peter admitted to the panel, letting out a sigh and a comedy droop of the shoulders.
“It honestly is.”
He unloaded some statistics on the panel…something about how 87% of calls are answered in three fractions of a nano-second.
Then he wandered off into a rambling, round-the-houses analogy.
“This 101 dog has a bad name now,” he started, confidently.
“And it’s difficult for the, er, 101 dog to dispel that bad name,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you tell the public the dog isn’t actually that bad, they believe what they read in the Press,” he snorted.
As Peter thundered on, the PR chief transmitted what sounded suspiciously like a “message cough” to steer him off the dog theme.
I’m not sure it was a message cough, but if it was, then Peter just ignored it and soldiered on…
I was there for Peter’s totally forgettable victory speech…in May 2016.
The ridiculously slippy floor at the Westmorland Hall of Kendal Leisure Centre, was nearly empty.
You’ve never seen council staff exit a community hall quicker than when the Tory candidate gets in.
It has the effect of a fire alarm going off.
Only SLDC chief, Lawrence “The Don” Conway was one of the few left to help put some of the remaining chairs and tables away.
McCall approached the stage and reached into the double-breasted jacket pocket of his Navy blue suit, pulling out a pre-prepared speech.
The assembled media, who included ITV Border’s Lois Lane, Fiona Marley-Patterson, was hoping for something “Superman” from Cumbria’s new Army man.
A big statement, may be?
Not a bit of it.
“I firmly believe that we must fight crime together as communities,” were Quick Draw’s disappointing opening words.
“Cumbria remains one of the safest counties in the country
“We have a superb police force”
“But there are significant
budget cuts challenges ahead…”
“I’m happy to take those on your behalf
(give me the scissors).“
By this time, the media had fallen asleep but we were cruelly woken up by the claps and foot-stamps from Peter’s Tory supporters.
Those hard-workin Blues love an active verb.
Getting the crime commissioner job was a big moment for Peter because in order to run for office, he first had to resign from 30 years in the army.
You can’t hold a political post in the army, but in any event, Peter had seen and done it all.
From an army family, he signed up after the Falklands at the age of 22, and served in all the war zones…Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, er Hong Kong.
He lived in Germany for 14 years and is fluent in the language. (Don’t ever tell Grandad).
One of his major irritations is litter (tell Grandad!)
During foot and mouth disease, he commanded a logistics regiment in Cumbria supplying soldiers to move cattle.
“Put that cow over there please,” (Forgive me, I’m summarising, obviously).
His proudest Army moment was his three years as regimental colonel supporting operations in Afghanistan in 2008 and leading 16,000 soldiers.
Taking on Ebola etc etc
He said: “When I was young, my parents were always Conservative Party members and I do remember canvassing on behalf of Willie Whitelaw a million years ago in Wigton.”
“I have spoken to many, many people over the last few weeks and I have been struck by how many people are just not engaged by politics generally – not just the police and crime commissioner.
“And the impression I’ve got is that they’re not actively engaged…they’re just not that interested.”
“And that is an issue.”
There were some hellish statistics back from the returning officer.
4,611 nuggets voting in the police and crime election did not mark a second preference on their ballot paper.
5,483 ballot papers were rejected by the official returning officer.
BLOCKING THE FIRE EXITS
During the police and crime panel meeting a female member of staff sensitively peeked her head around the door.
She asked the room: “Is anyone here the owner of a silver Almera?”
The committee fidgeted uncomfortably. Everyone self-consciously turned to each other.
Being outed as the rogue parker is like being identified as the person who traipsed dog muck into Nana’s hallway.
“Quick Draw” shakes his head. I doubt he’d be seen dead in an Almera.
They went out of production years ago.
He’d prefer a Land Rover, or a Challenger Tank.
Unable to identify the culprit, the staff member slipped back out.
As she retreated, chairman Steve Bowditch turned to look at me.
“Let’s hope it’s not been stolen!”
Now that would have been a story…