When he was an MPA Member, Damian Hockney was alone for a year in calling openly for Sir Ian Blair to quit, at a time when the Conservatives were publicly backing the Commissioner.
As an unknown politician from a small party, he was given lead item on all three national evening news broadcasts for his low level call and he says that’s when realised that the politicisation of the role of Met Chief was complete.
He thinks that the latest developments hold dangers which are a logical extension of government muddying the waters of the way London is run. Today’s MPA meeting, the first with Boris as Chair, did not allay his concerns…
Of course, Sir Ian could have decided that he’d simply had enough and the chat with the Mayor was the final straw. Or he might have “found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility,” to paraphrase King Edward VIII when he left the throne for Wallis Simpson, “without the help and support of the administration I love”.
If you look at the news stories and the commentaries, there is little attempt to really explain the confused system that lies behind latest developments. Or the muddy avoidance of procedures supposedly put in place to ensure accountability and devolution of power. Just a sort of thrashing around in the mud with personality to the fore. And it has taken former Met Chief Lord Stevens to get the the core: “I am still very much puzzled by what has gone on. I cannot be sure of what has happened because there are still allegations and denials and differing accounts from both sides.” It says something that the only person who has got to that core is the person who admits he hasn’t a clue what is going on.
ABSENCE OF FACTS
And in the absence of facts, opinion takes over. Opinion based upon whether you support Sir Ian or whether you oppose him. Possibilities that fit with a particular view are selectively used or conveniently ignored…the supposed ‘outrage’ of the Home Secretary on Question Time reported so faithfully, the “sacking” of the Met Chief by the Mayor, the failure of the Mayor to discuss it openly and frankly (the failure at first of the Mayor to actually appear at all). In an additional attempt by media to make all this simple, with a cast of goodies, baddies, knaves and fools, you end up with a simplistic version of an incorrect story underpinned by a pod of smokescreens from the cast of those involved.
As ‘pod’ is the collective noun for whales and these smokescreens are as big and heavy and obvious as those creatures, the word seems the right one. No-one is really telling the truth or spelling out the facts, so you have a level of confusion and secrecy which is the more odd owing to the fact that all those involved talk all the time about transparency, open government etc. And whether you like the outcome or not, a casualty is any commitment to open government and above board open dealings by the main players. All in favour of shadowy deals.
It would be easy for someone like myself, the first on the MPA to call for Sir Ian to go, to simply talk about the personalities, but the manner in which this has happened is the most important thing and a sign of very problematic things to come.
There is a burgeoning macedoine of governmental arrangements and bodies involved in decision making, particularly in London. New bodies emerge (like the GLA) without getting rid of big old ones, like GoL (Government Office for London). New individual players obtain “influence”, with others still holding (some) reins. “Family” bodies (like the MPA) have theoretical powers which individual members have no involvement in and are not allowed to participate in because the real power lies elsewhere. If a police authority is a mere creature of anyone (whether Mayor or Home Office) what actually is the point of it? Ultimately? It can do ‘good works’ (and indeed does), but it is holding to account in the most difficult circumstances where it will be judged.
In a glorious moment at today’s MPA meeting, the Mayor talked about having discussed the situation regarding Sir Ian with members. “Which ones?” came back Jennette Arnold…and when the Mayor obfuscated, Jenny Jones simply said: “Put your hands up all those who have been consulted”. Hands up came there none. Caught and bowled, by a 23-man and women cricket team sitting on their hands. Gotcha Mayor. The idea that this doesn’t matter and that it’ll all come out in the wash is that same balderdash and piffle that the Mayor often talks about, because the precedent is to further deny access, and to centralise power on individuals, rendering scrutiny impotent. The only opposing argument is that it was clear at the meeting that the Mayor was slightly rowing back and recognised the need to consult the MPA. Memo to MPA members of all parties; now be very very tough.
The media is therefore confused (and those who are not have to simplify most of the facts out with a filter). Opinion takes the place of facts.
It is completely correct of course that the Mayor has no formal role in hiring or firing the Met Chief. But of course it is also pedantic to argue that therefore the Mayor has no influence or no involvement. But that’s the problem. News reports speak factually about a “sacking” which cannot be. A sacking is a sacking. The devil is, as always, in the detail.
It remains an odd form of ‘sacking’ where the person sacked says he has resigned and the person who supposedly did the sacking is barred by law from sacking anyone, will not speak about it and look you in the eye at the same time and effectively denies it. This is important because in a democracy, you have to know who is making the decisions. You have to know who is accountable and responsible: the structures have to be clear. It’s not an anorak argument – it’s an argument that goes to the heart of democracy at every level.
And this is the confused arrangement we now have – it encourages backroom deals which squeeze out the processes designed to pretend that the system of governance is open and transparent. It allows people like the Home Secretary to hide behind the traditional politician’s expression of being ‘outraged and appalled’ – an expression you adopt above all when you are content with the end result but wish to appear to be above the fray and not party to it. It allows the Mayor to simply assume that the MPA is his creature to such an extent that it doesn’t even need to be consulted. “L’APM, c’est moi”.
It is interesting that, along with Sir John, the former Mayor has exposed the issues more neatly in his comments than anyone else. Above all, on the fact that the Mayor was almost invisible for a period and gives an impression of being less than candid.
Arguing against “politicisation” is frankly whistling in the wind. What we need now is a clear understanding of what sort of politicisation we are talking about, what it means to the person in the top job(s) and where the limits are. Above all, “who’s the guvnor?”