Leading article: London's police deserve a new leader


The question that should be asked about the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes is: have the lessons been learned and are we as a result safer now from the threat of terrorism and from the police reaction to it? The question of Sir Ian Blair's future as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is a secondary one and can be rephrased thus: would Sir Ian's resignation make us safer?

This requires us to scrape away the less relevant mud that has been hurled at him since he took the job in February 2005. He has been accused of all manner of failings, many listed by Brian Coleman, a Conservative member of the London Assembly, in today's Independent on Sunday. It even requires us to look beyond the issue of last week's court finding against the Met over the killing of de Menezes.

There is no question that his death was a truly awful mistake, the outcome of a series of ghastly failings by several police officers operating under rules and structures that were Sir Ian's responsibility. Yet the court's findings as to culpability were quite clear. Collectively, the Met Police deserved censure but no one person was adjudged to have done anything so wrong as to justify prosecution. The picture painted in court of the confusion of that day, 22 July 2005, was all too credible. We can all ask why, if they thought de Menezes was a possible suicide bomber, they allowed him to travel so far, and we can wonder why there were no fallback procedures for the police to confront him. Equally, we all remember the shock of the 7 July bombings, and the aftershock of the attempted bombings of 21 July. That de Menezes was mis-identified as one of the 21 July bombers the next day was terrible, but we should remember too the speed with which the real bombers were arrested, within eight days.

The question that dominated the headlines last week, however, was the wrong one. Sir Ian should not have to go as some form of ritual sacrifice on the altar of the principle of "accountability". Not every time that failings are identified in an organisation is the head of that organisation required to resign.

No, he should go because we are drawn reluctantly to the conclusion that he is not the best person to lead the Met as it learns the lessons of this unfortunate affair. Although there are questions about Sir Ian's responsibility for the "Kratos" guidelines for dealing with suspected suicide bombers, which contributed to the confusion in Stockwell station that day, his serious failings occurred afterwards. These were less the focus of last week's court case, but will be examined in the report of the Independent Police Complaints Commission expected soon.

Even on the day of the shooting, Sir Ian showed a bizarre lack of curiosity. He held a news conference before he knew all the facts, and went home at the end of normal office hours. From then on he gave the impression of a man determined only to prevent his position being damaged. He initially tried to fend off the IPCC; he secretly recorded phone conversations with the IPCC and the Attorney General; and he persistently sought to represent de Menezes as a more credible suspect than he was. He was also slow to repudiate the erroneous suggestions that seemed to come from the police that de Menezes was wearing a bulky jacket and behaved suspiciously. The impression was left that the Met under him clutched at any excuse, including the cocaine found in de Menezes' blood. And it was Sir Ian who rejected advice to plead guilty to the proceedings that concluded last week.

The threat from suicide terrorism is serious. The real criticism of last week's court verdict is that it might prompt the police to hold back when there is the need for quick and decisive action. Countering that tendency and demanding clarity rather than caution requires strong leadership, which we do not believe Sir Ian can provide. One weakness that has become apparent in recent months is the lack of support and loyalty that he commands at all levels in the Met. His supporters seem to be mostly politicians – and some of the most important are holding back.

The support offered to him last week by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, was the minimum required: "I have full confidence in the Metropolitan Police and their Commissioner to continue the fight against the serious terrorist threat that we are facing." What was particularly ominous for Sir Ian, though, was the silence of the Prime Minister. On Friday, Gordon Brown found time to congratulate Countdown, the Channel 4 quiz show, on its 25th anniversary. Yet he had nothing to say about the future of the country's most important policeman. Sir Ian's job is not formally in Mr Brown's gift, and nor should it be. It is up to the Metropolitan Police Authority, and its members should decide that the next phase of London's defence against terrorism needs new leadership.

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