Dominic Lawson: The dangers of this politician in uniform

Make of it what you will that Sir Ian Blair's most outspoken supporter is Ken Livingstone
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The Independent Online

Sir Ian Blair has an odd sense of priorities. One of his first executive acts after taking over as Metropolitan Police Commissioner at the start of 2005 was to change the force's logo "Working for a safer London." Sir Ian was adamant that it be changed to "Working together for a safer London". One of his colleagues explained that Sir Ian's decision was principally motivated by the fact that "the old logo was not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 because it was slightly italicised and it may have proved difficult to read for visually impaired people."

While Sir Ian has a touching concern for those of us who have trouble reading the lettering on police cars as they hurtle through the capital, it amazed me at the time that he should actually believe that any of us care what self-preening slogan is printed on them: I believe I speak for all Londoners, whether hawk-eyed or profoundly myopic, when I say that the word POLICE in large capital letters is all we require.

Yet other matters, which one might have thought to be of more compelling interest to the country's most senior policeman, do not seem to have attracted Sir Ian's fullest attention. It appears, for example, that he did not wish to get closely involved in the decision last week to raid a house in Forest Gate. Obviously no commissioner can interfere in every raid on every house: that would be preposterous. But the Forest Gate raid involved over 250 armed officers, acting on intelligence which suggested that the house contained deadly chemical weaponry. The stakes were unimaginably high.

Sir Ian's aloofness does at least explain something hitherto inexplicable: why it was that his own officers did not tell him for 24 hours that they had killed an innocent Brazilian at Stockwell Underground station last July, leaving Sir Ian to give television interviews which were grossly, if unintentionally, misleading.

The leaks from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPPC) report into the Stockwell debacle suggest that the delay in letting Sir Ian know that an innocent man had been executed stemmed from the fact that he "takes bad news very badly."

Whether that was the real reason, or whether it was because Sir Ian had failed to ask the right questions of his officers before he went on air to broadcast what turned out to be an untrue account of Jean Charles de Menezes' conduct on the day in question, one thing is clear: there is a calamitous absence of real leadership at the top of the Met.

It is presumably that which led Peter Smyth to declare publicly to a startled Home Office minister at the Police Federation's annual conference: "On behalf of the 24,000 constables in London and at the request of my branch board, I am letting you know that we have no confidence in this Commissioner."

Sir Ian would doubtless argue that the 24,000 constables were simply behaving like the worst sort of trade union, in opposing the reforms which he is introducing. He has consistently attacked the "immensely powerful mores of a white culture" which he claims is a besetting sin of the London police service.

But his strictures don't stop with the people who work for him. A year ago he accused the British media of being "institutionally racist" in their coverage of crime, and gave as an example of the wilfulness of the press the immense attention given to the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham: "Putting it bluntly, it's a quiet news day, it's August, these things can blow up."

Leaving aside the appalling insensitivity these remarks showed to the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, it also portrayed a man completely out of touch with normal human emotions. And even when those emotions are missing, it would be unimaginable for anyone with the least political aptitude to make such a crass misjudgement of the public mood.

That, in fact, is one of the many paradoxes about Ian Blair. He is a graduate in English literature from Oxford, and yet seems unable to express himself clearly in the English language. He is deeply political, and yet lacks the most basic political skills - except one: he is adept at oiling up to the people in power.

This explained his decision to get one of his deputies to brief wavering Labour MPs on the need to support the Prime Minister's ill-fated legislation for 90-day detention orders. It also explained his quite extraordinary decision to go on the David Frost programme and speak in support of the Government's controversial ID card proposals during a general election in which the two main opposition parties were campaigning against the measure.

As Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, commented at the time: "People should perform their roles with constitutional humility. Sir Ian is too much a politician in uniform - which is dangerous in a democracy."

Make of it what you will that Sir Ian's most outspoken supporter is Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London: in April he told the BBC that Sir Ian is "incredibly impressive and will be completely exonerated when we get the report into the de Menezes shooting". Mr Livingstone's ability to guarantee the outcome of a report in which he has no involvement is remarkable, but before anyone falls for his mystical powers of prognostication, I feel obliged to point out that in March 2005 the Mayor of London also told the BBC that "we are more at risk of dying from bird flu than being blown up by any terrorists." Four months later, 52 of his electors lay dead, with 700 wounded - and bird flu had nothing to do with it.

Thanks to a leak, rather than Mr Livingstone's psychic powers, we now have some idea of what the IPCC report into the killing of Mr Menezes will tell us. It appears that the Special Branch surveillance team were responsible for the initial misidentification of Mr Menezes as the missing terrorist Hussain Osman - and then attempted to cover up the error by changing the surveillance log entry from "It was Osman" to "and it was not Osman." These people aren't even capable of a professional cover-up.

It could be that criminal charges will need to be brought against some officers as a result of the IPCC findings. In normal circumstances one would expect that to rule out any immediate dismissals, on the grounds that such action would prejudice a future trial. But I don't believe such legal niceties will stay the hand of John Reid, who as Home Secretary is understandably desperate to restore public confidence in the Met.

Four years ago, as Northern Ireland Secretary, Mr Reid overrode Unionist objections and appointed the admirably dispassionate Hugh Orde as chief of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I somehow don't think there will be many objections when later this summer Mr Reid gives Hugh Orde the job that is so beyond the talents of Sir Ian Blair.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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