The evening after the Metropolitan Police shot an innocent Brazilian at Stockwell I went and saw the then Deputy Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson. I asked whether it was true that the Commissioner had barred the Independent Police Complaints Commission from their legal duty to investigate the death. He said it was. I told him I thought it was the most stupid decision I had ever heard of (I knew by then that we had made a terrible mistake). He smiled and said “It’s my job to support the Commissioner.” I was concerned from then on that Stephenson might be giving the incumbent, Sir Ian (now Lord) Blair, enough rope to hang himself with. Within two years Ian Blair resigned as Commissioner, having been forced out following a series of errors of judgement.
In the days following Sir Paul Stephenson’s appointment as Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, Kit Malthouse, chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, was reportedly going around telling people that they (the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson and himself) had got the man they wanted. They had turned down the fiercely independent and outspoken Sir Hugh Orde, who had demonstrated outstanding leadership, sure-footedness and political adeptness as Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, in favour of ‘a safe pair of hands’, also known as someone who was not going to give them any trouble – or so they thought.
Unfortunately, Sir Paul’s low-key, traditional British bobby “I don’t want any trouble” approach, did not wash in the ego-infested upper echelons of the UK’s biggest police force. The Metropolitan Police has four Assistant Commissioners and a Deputy, all of whom hold the equivalent rank of a Chief Constable, the officer in charge of other police Forces. They are powerful individuals, each with their own empire and reputations to defend, all fighting for their slice of the corporate resources cake and all with an eye on higher office. It takes a very strong individual to hold the ring. It is simply not good enough to take your senior colleagues’ word for it in this kind of environment, when mistakes or oversights within their own departments, if discovered, can have serious consequences for the Assistant Commissioners concerned. An aggressive, intrusive, challenging and sceptical approach has to be taken or you end-up having to take the fall yourself.
Sir Paul should have asked more probing questions about the Met’s phone hacking investigation. He should have refused to agree to the employment of former News of the Word Deputy Editor, Neil Wallis, as a consultant to the Met whilst his force was investigating the same paper. He certainly should not have been wining and dining senior executives from the News International during that investigation. To cap it all, in the same week that the Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke was distinguishing acceptable corporate hospitality from corruption, it was revealed that Stephenson had accepted hospitality that appeared to fall into Clarke’s unacceptable bracket.
The last Commissioner to hold office for the full term, Sir John (now Lord) Stephens, used an ‘iron fist’ approach towards his senior colleagues. It won him few friends around the Management Board table but history will show that his term was, in many ways, a success. Sir Ian Blair followed with the best of intentions to change the culture of the Met but he failed to take his senior colleagues with him. His attempts to persuade, and when they failed, to isolate and ostracise senior colleagues, also failed. Ian Blair’s lack of grip was most pointedly illustrated when one of his Assistant Commissioners, Andy Hayman (now a columnist for News International), told journalists within hours that he believed the police had shot the wrong man at Stockwell but, according to the official record, he did not tell the Commissioner until the following day. Questions were also raised about contracts awarded by the Met to a company where one of the directors was Blair’s skiing partner. In the end, it was the Mayor of London’s lack of confidence in Blair that was blamed for his resignation as Commissioner.
The dilemma for politicians is that the Met needs a very strong, independent-minded leader who will not take any nonsense from anyone, including his or her political masters. What I believe recent history shows, is that without such a tough leader at the helm, the Metropolitan Police will continue to drift onto the rocks.