Speculation about the future of Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, was heightened last week after the disclosure that he had taped private conversations between himself and a number of officials, including the Attorney General. This was rightly seen as another gaffe which brought into question his ability to lead the largest police organisation in this country. As on previous occasions when Sir Ian has erred, the Government expressed its confidence in him in an effort to bring closure to the incident. The substantive question remains, however, in the mind of many people: "Is this a fit and proper person to hold the high position that he does?"
On paper, one could not find a person better qualified to do the job. Sir Ian epitomises everything New Labour stood for when it came to office. He is well educated; has a good persona in public; deals openly with sensitive issues; is bent on bringing about change for the benefit of minority sections within our society and is in tune with other policies. Moreover, his image when appointed was unlike that of the people who had gone before. He was the "new man" of the police service: one who supported the right of the individual against the might of authority; someone to right the wrongs of the past by rooting out racism and sexism. He was viewed in some Whitehall circles as a breath of fresh air ready to bring about the same fundamental changes in the police service that the other Mr Blair had brought to the Labour Party.
The timing of his appointment gave the Home Office the opportunity to regain its influence over the Met, lost during the latter years of his predecessor, Lord Stevens. This is not unusual in the police service, where a strong character has been in office for a length of time, the replacement is often chosen because of a willingness to comply with the wishes of those doing the choosing. The public spats between David Blunkett, the previous Home Secretary, and Sir John, as he then was, will have strengthened the Government's resolve to avoid appointing a "difficult character".
Sir John was highly regarded within the service because of his plain speaking and operational credentials. Bobbies like to feel they are being led by someone who can roll their sleeves up, and Sir John was one of the few remaining chief officers of whom that could be said. His generation has largely been replaced by more academic and less operational officers.
Sir Ian's first public pronouncement confirmed the worst fears of many officers, who, like any other employees working in a stressful environment, needed to know they had the support of their boss. Instead, Sir Ian majored on the internal changes needed to cleanse the Met of bad practices and inequality. This was an error of judgement. He would have been wiser to enlist the support of the public and the rank and file before embarking upon changes.
Moreover, there was little new in what he advocated. Institutional racism and sexism have been around in the police service for a long time, and the last two generations of chief officers had tried to eradicate it. Notwithstanding this, in his first few months Sir Ian exposed himself to ridicule by making politically correct gestures which were seen as costly and superficial.
While Sir Ian's stance may have complied with the wishes of those who appointed him, and found favour with the more liberal elements of the media, it did not offer much comfort to the foot soldiers, many of whom must have felt let down. But time is a great healer and had this been the only error of judgement Sir Ian was guilty of, then it would soon have been forgiven and normal business resumed. This was not to be the case. His statement that "the Met is playing out of its socks. I am very pleased with what is happening" the day after his officers shot Jean Charles de Menezes may come back to haunt him, particularly if it is proved that his office knew De Menezes was an innocent man at the time Sir Ian uttered those words. They were followed by criticism of the methods employed by West Midlands Police in arresting another terror suspect without shooting him or harming themselves.
Sir Ian expressed his concern because that force had not adopted the tactics used by his own. In doing so he breached the code of practice between senior officers not to comment on incidents outside their command. I suspect he lost the support of many of his brother and sister officers at that moment.
The Metropolitan Police Federation, which represents more than 24,000 rank-and-file officers, said last week his position is now "untenable" because he has brought the service into disrepute, and he should resign. None of this will have concerned his political sponsors or officials within the Home Office. Disharmony within the higher echelons of the police service adds weight to their desire to achieve greater centralised control by amalgamating forces. What will have irked them is to have been drawn into a public argument, as happened when Sir Ian sought the support of Sir John Gieve, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, to prevent the Independent Police Complaints Commission from investigating the botched shooting. This black mark against him was then compounded when it was discovered that he had also recorded this telephone call.
Using the murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells as an example of media inequality in publicising serious crime was also insensitive. We all make mistakes but we should learn from them. Sir Ian appears unwilling or unable to do so. The two main attributes of someone at his level in public life are trustworthiness and judgement, both of which he has put in question. His political masters have been unduly tolerant so far, but that may change. They showed no such prevarication in dealing with David Westwood, the former Chief Constable of Humberside. He was vilified for one error of judgement made before he joined the organisation. But with memories of Soham still raw, his suspension was enforced.
Sir Ian cannot be sacked without the Home Secretary saying so. The Government is in flux, and under attack from its backbenchers on other issues, and seems disinclined to confront him for now. But the inquiry into Sir Ian's conduct after the shooting will report next month. Even if he survives that, the moment his departure becomes politically expedient, it will happen.
Dr Keith Hellawell was formerly Chief Constable of West Yorkshire PoliceReuse content