Thursday, 31 July 2008

Limpet clings on

Not the least cause for celebration at the election of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London was the prospect that the city, and the country, might finally see the back of Sir Ian Blair. Discredited after the Stockwell shooting, responsible for a string of PR disasters, unpopular with rank-and-file officers, hilariously accused of racism by the gruesome twosome of Ali Dizaei and Tarique Ghaffur, and now under investigation into how his skiing companion came to be awarded police contracts worth £3million, it should be relatively straightforward to scrape this disastrous commissioner off the Yard.

Boris had hinted that he would like nothing better than to see the back of the Met Commissioner - one might almost claim it was part of his manifesto - and despite an awkwardly-staged joint press conference shortly after the election it seems that he has been as good as his word. Yesterday it was revealed that BJ has been looking for ways to do the deed. Unfortunately, it might not prove quite so easy a task as was at first thought. An initial attempt to suspend Blair pending the results of the inquiry (as would have happened to any provincial chief constable, or any senior officer in the Met) has been rebuffed by his lawyers. And today we learn that the commissioner has decided to fight his corner, as usual, by clambering up onto a high horse.

According to the Guardian, Blair is worried that the developing spat between him and the mayor demonstrates that his position is becoming increasingly politicised. "I find that inappropriate," he adds.

That's a bit rich coming from him. Ian Blair has well nigh single-handedly turned the Metropolitan Police from an independent force to being the helmetted wing of New Labour. He owes his position to his consummate political gifts, and his mastery of fashionable ideological language, rather than any record fighting crime. Since being appointed, he has made himself available to ministers to speak out in favour of controversial policies from ID cards to 90 days detention without trial, intervening repeatedly in party politics. A constitutionally improper position for a public servant to occupy, but one which came naturally to him. He also forged a dangerously close alliance with Ken Livingstone which led, among other things, to Livingstone openly defending the right of police to shoot innocent people dead just in case.

A lot of touchy-feeling rhetoric about "inclusiveness" and high-profile diversity campaigns have gone hand in hand with a progressive spread of firearms and a culture of shoot-first impunity that reached its tragic apogee in the cold-blooded and (even if he had been a suspect) unnecessary shooting dead of Jean Charles de Menezes while held in a position of complete restraint. The aftermath of that terrible event saw Blair at his worst, blustering, arrogant, not troubling himself to check facts before smearing his force's victim, evasive in later enquiries, always looking for someone else to blame. His shamelessness revealed itself at its fullest after the Met was convicted of health and safety breaches over the Stockwell shooting. Small comfort to the De Menezes family, but calling for at least a show of contrition. Instead, in a churlish and distasteful statement, Blair claimed total vindication (at least of him personally) and announced that he would "continue to lead the Met in its increasingly successful efforts."

Livingstone stood loyally by him on that occasion, announcing the next day that police officers had been coming up to him proclaiming "we're with Ian". In fact he is by some distance the least popular Met commissioner in recorded history. Still, the crucial support of Ken Livingstone - which some might regard itself as inappropriate politicisation of Blair's office - showed how well the commissioner has played the game.

With Ken, in happier times

At least Tony Blair knew when the game was up and went with some dignity. Ian Blair, on the other hand, remains as convinced as he was on the day of the De Menezes verdict that he is the only man for the job. Indeed, if Boris Johnson, the elected Mayor, were able to remove him from office, Blair believes, this would be a "bad bargain". The Met commissioner has both national and international responsibilities, he contends. In short, he's far more important than Boris.

Blair will presumably be looking to the Home Secretary and his other political buddies to shore up his crumbling position. He's unlikely to be able to rely on his officers. On one police forum today, I found little sympathy. One detective opined,

I'm beyond caring about how Blair is despatched. He has overseen the demise of the Met and caused one cock up after another. If it takes a fallout with Boris to send him on his way, then so be it.

A sergeant added that Boris's scheme hardly resembled a "plot", "more like a public service". While another online officer was rejoicing that "this clown will soon be gone", but worried that his replacement might turn out to be another "politico idealistic high flyer with little experience of frontline policing, continuing the destruction of a once great and proud force".

It must be galling for Ian Blair, after building his whole career on pleasing New Labour ministers, to find the government he served so loyally starting to crumble, to find Tories winning elections. Still, the self-proclaimed "limpet" isn't intending to go any more quietly than Gordon Brown. "I will continue to stay in office, because that is my job," he said. Staying in office must indeed have become more-or-less a full time job for Commisioner Blair. London needs a police chief whose main priority is fighting crime, not fighting for his career.