In the wake of Sir Ian Blair’s resignation as Metropolitan Police Commissioner, James Fagan questions the role of politics in policing.
On 2nd October, Sir Ian Blair resigned as head of the Metropolitan Police service. His three-year career could be described as a controversial and turbulent one. During his time as Commissioner, Scotland Yard faced a number of public outcries including the infamous shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in July 2005.
His resignation came swiftly after London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, was appointed chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority. Johnson has been one of Sir Blair’s harshest critics calling for ‘a change of leadership’ at the head of the Met and the timing of the resignation has raised questions of political motivation and authority within policing.
When asked about why he chose to resign Sir Ian Blair stated that “without the Mayor’s backing I do not think I can continue”. No doubt this conflict has cost the service a dedicated man (in his resignation speech he said he wished to stay until the end of his contract in 2010).
During his time as commissioner there has been a noted fall in crime. His agenda was based on modernising the force; one measure was the highly praised “neighbourhood” policing strategy, which dedicated small teams of officers to local areas.
Yet despite these achievements, one asks how much is Sir Blair is to blame for his lack of support? From early on in his post he had drawn strong criticisms. The first wave of this was the backing of the government’s proposed National ID card scheme. This made him a target of the Tories from early on who accused him of being bedfellows with Labour.
He faced further backlash from the de Menezes shooting soon after in July 2005. Here he showed his stubbornness when it came to listening to advice, deciding to challenge the inquiry in the Old Bailey when other senior officials wanted to plead guilty to violating health and safety laws. The force was found guilty anyway and it left Sir Blair standing as a target of further backlash amid calls for his resignation.
More recently he has been embroiled in the race row in Scotland Yard as well as on personal corruption charges. Allegations have been made over the award of IT contracts to Impact Plus, owned by a friend of Sir Blair. It’s obvious that Blair was a lightning rod for criticism and much of it through his own decisions.
Nonetheless, Boris Johnson’s flex of muscle is rather worrying. The task of appointing the Commissioner and dismissing him rests by Statute with the Home Secretary. What Mr Johnson has done is a blatant overstep of his authority. As chairman of the Authority he would be able to pose objections and barricades to the Commissioner.
No doubt it was with this in mind that Sir Blair made his decision. Obviously working in a hostile environment would not be as productive as he would want, considering his progressive agenda. His ousting can be seen as a portent of things to come of how Boris Johnson may wield his power.
The forcing out of Sir Blair seems to be based on a Conservative political agenda. Mr Johnson expressly denies this, stating he has not set a “dangerous precedent” yet this is questionable. Mr Johnson’s involvement in this has given him a confidence to use his power to highlight the government’s shortcomings as he sees them.
It’s obvious that Blair was a lightning rod for criticism and much of it through his own decisions
A number of his aides have said they hoped his decisions would be a “crossover between a tired and drifting government unable to take controversial decisions and a mayoralty with a huge mandate and clear direction”.
The problem is that mayors hold sway in their municipalities only. They should not be trying to affect change on a national level. The decisions by Mr Johnson reflect the ongoing clash between Labour and the Conservatives albeit on a battleground outside of the House of Commons.
No doubt the role of Commissioner is a highly politicised one. He is not only responsible for London but also the UK as a whole in areas such as Anti-Terrorism. Naturally he is going to be directly influenced by government, those to whom he answers to. This makes him out to be a target for their critics but this isn’t necessarily the way it should be.
Policing should strive to be as free of politics as it can. It stands as an extension of the government but it should be free to carry out its work free from undue influence. The muddling of the senior positions with politics creates the unfortunate effect of clouding leadership role of the force while placing extreme pressures on those senior officers.
In an interview, President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Ken Jones said, “my view is chiefs and commissioners are not in a dissimilar position to judges. They need to balance constantly vested interests, populism, various pressures and ultimately they are accountable to law.”
Jones goes on to say, “we need politicians of all persuasions to recognise the dilemmas they face and to give them their support.” He is right. It would be better for the running of the police services if they were helped and encouraged, rather than used as pawns in the political game.
With both Labour and the Conservatives stating that after the next election they want to increase the role of directly-elected officials in policing, this idea looks unlikely to materialise any time soon.
There is one glimmer of hope though. The Tories are pushing for directly elected commissioners to replace police authorities and hold chief constables to account. This would mean they themselves are more answerable to the people who they serve and protect, a good thing no doubt.
Perhaps if politics were not so involved in this whole affair Sir Blair may not have resigned in the end. One thing is clear though. His resignation has opened a can of worms on decision making and policing. Where this will lead to in the end ultimately remains to be seen.