Tim Newburn: Boris has some explaining to do

The Met is in urgent need of democratic reform, but the resignation of Sir Ian Blair - which looks more like cock-up than conspiracy - must not be the precursor to short-term fixes and nasty populist policing

Share
Related Topics

He has ridden out many much more serious storms over the past three years, but suddenly a meeting with the Mayor of London produces the resignation of Sir Ian Blair. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner has had his share of critics, but his resilience in the face of the most hostile treatment has been consistent. So, what happened? Why now? And what are the consequences of this political power struggle for control of our largest police force?

The stories circulating since last Thursday have varied widely. Some suggest that this was just another example of Boris the loose-cannon Mayor acting without the knowledge of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Home Secretary or the Conservative Party hierarchy. Others say it was the successful culmination of a long-standing Tory plot to oust Blair and bring in someone less sympathetic to New Labour.

I've never been much of a fan of conspiracy theories, and anyway there is more than a sniff of cock-up about this series of events. The fact that the normally garrulous Boris Johnson was refusing to answer questions in the immediate aftermath of Blair's resignation seemed a bit fishy. Perhaps it was just a momentary pause while the Tory plotters got their stories straight? More likely, it seems to me, is that Blair's resignation came as a shock to the Tory hierarchy and that Boris had some explaining to do.

David Cameron has been assiduous in his attempts to rein in his maverick mayor. However, Boris has form. He's a serial offender and that he was acting on his own initiative seems much more likely than some grand scheme hatched at Tory Central. Indeed, there's a further possibility. Perhaps the Mayor's initial refusal to answer questions was because he was in shock too. Johnson was in the process of taking over as chair of the MPA and had a private meeting with the Commissioner. His views of Blair are well known and he undoubtedly made it clear again that he would do whatever was within his power to ensure that Blair didn't see his contract through to 2010. I imagine he did this little expecting that a man who has described himself as "a bit of a limpet" would decide that now was the time to go.

This is all speculation. But, if true, it would give the lie to the assumption that Ian Blair can't do politics very well. This is a man who was widely respected, but was equally widely expected to lose his job at some stage. Perhaps in the end he managed to maintain some control over his departure. In doing so he wrong-footed critics and is leaving with many observers bemoaning his treatment and highlighting the many positive aspects of his commissionership. Any stink at the moment surrounds Boris not Blair.

The shenanigans of the past few days make one thing abundantly clear. We need to sort out the relationship between politics and policing. First, to all those who say that politics has no role in policing – forget it. Politics has always been part and parcel of policing, long before Boris. The big issue for us is how should a police service, and its senior officials, be made democratically accountable? Who should govern them and how?

In most cases, in my view, they should be directly answerable to locally elected police authorities. Such bodies exist, though they are neither entirely elected nor sufficiently powerful. For too long the Home Office has been the dominant partner. The case of the Metropolitan Police is a little different, however. The Met has a series of national responsibilities, not least counter-terrorism, and these mean that the Home Secretary necessarily plays an important role in overseeing what it does and in appointing the Commissioner, in consultation with the police authority.

But, you say, surely my plea for a greater role for local control of policing will lead to the proliferation of Mayor Johnsons all over the country? It needn't. We can reform and reinvigorate police authorities without institutionalising the shambles of the last few days. We must resist the calls for the creation of some form of American-style mayoral control over policing for such a model threatens many of the better aspects of the British system. Too much mayoral power is a recipe for nasty populist politics and short-term fixes rather than considered local democratic oversight.

The commissionership of the Met is too large, too complex and too important a job to be in the gift of the Mayor. This is a problem of New Labour's creation and one it must urgently fix. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and her colleagues need to get a grip of this before more lasting damage is done. The dangers are well illustrated by some of the ideas being spread by the Mayor's aides over the past few days. First they suggested it would be reasonable to wait until there was a Conservative home secretary before appointing a permanent replacement for Sir Ian. This would mean a temporary commissioner for 18 months followed by what would be seen as a nakedly political appointment. Fragile public faith in policing would be tested to the limit. The Met would surely not stand for it either.

Finally, what of the recent suggestion that the Johnson team's favoured candidate to replace Blair is the Los Angeles police chief, Bill Bratton? Highly experienced, charismatic and coming with the reputation of having championed New York's experiment with so-called zero tolerance policing, one can see why Bratton's name gets mentioned. But he has no experience of British policing and little knowledge of our capital city and what makes it tick. He might just convince Boris, but it is hard to see him convincing the Home Secretary, the MPA, the officers of the Met, or the people of London. And if Boris mentions the idea again, it is worth reminding him that Bratton only survived for two years in New York before being sacked. Yes, by the Mayor.

Tim Newburn is professor of criminology at the London School of Economics ( t.newburn@lse.ac.uk)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam