Last night’s resignation of Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson brings the fall-out from phone hacking scandal slightly closer to City Hall.
Sir Paul was the preferred candidate of Team Johnson and his resignation further stokes the impression of a force in disarray as it struggles to improve on its initial, inadequate investigation.
Boris Johnson’s opponents hope to exploit two separate elements of the phone hacking row in their bid to unseat him next May.
The first – and least potent – is his initial dismissal of initial reports as ‘codswallop’.
Though Boris stumbled to explain this comment when quizzed by the BBC, his advisors ensured he had a good line of defence ready by the time he appeared before the London Assembly for last week’s Mayor’s Question Time.
Questioned by Labour’s Len Duvall, Boris had this to say:
“If you remember the context then, this was at a time when, to the best of my knowledge and to the best of the knowledge of the police and the Crown Prosecuting Service (CPS) there was nothing new in the allegations. What I think I was reflecting was my sense of amazement – and this is why I used the word ‘codswallop’ – that the Labour Party seemed to be making such a big thing about this, when they had been in power for a long time, during the period when all this was going on, after the phone hacking thing was exposed and actually did not see fit in that epoch to get quite as indignant as they subsequently became, when the papers concerned switched their support, and they lost the election and so on and so forth.
I have to say that was how it seemed to me at the time. I will stress that I think it is a fair person who remembers what I said, and will also remember that at the end of my dialogue, as it was with Joanne [McCartney] I said, “Let us be clear, if there are new salient facts that are brought into the public domain about this that actually serve to make a difference to the balance of the evidence, and to convince the police that they really need to take further steps, then I am sure they are doing to do”. At that stage I was fully prepared to accept that there could be new facts that would come into the public domain that would force me to change my position. Of course horrible new facts have come into the public domain and I think that the police are now right to be pursing these allegations with the maximum vigour.”
Quizzed by one of the news channels last night, the Mayor was able to reel-off an abbreviated version of the same defence which, I suspect, the average fair minded voter will be only too happy to accept.
His opponent’s second line of attack may be more damaging for the Mayor.
It will involve asking a series of difficult questions about the conduct of the Met including why the force entered into a contract with Neil Wallis, its relationship with journalists and whether anyone questioned the appropriateness of the Met Commissioner receiving free accommodation from a health spa.
The Mayor’s best defence to all these questions is to point out that he doesn’t run the police.
The problem for him is that he promised Londoners in his 2008 manifesto that he’d do exactly that.
In his manifesto the Mayor wrote: “It is important for the Mayor to take a public lead, so I will chair the Metropolitan Police Authority. I will take personal responsibility. No offence will be too trivial to demand my attention. No challenge will be so big that I shrug my shoulders and pass the buck.”
The presence of Malthouse on the news bulletins will only reinforce the fact that – spin aside – the Mayor’s involvement with the police is pretty hands-off.
‘I didn’t know because I broke my promise’ is an unenviable line of defence but it seems to be the only one available to the Mayor.
Be wary of City Hall briefed stories of the Mayor ‘ordering an inquiry’ into the Met.
The force answers to the Home Secretary and MPA, not the Mayor personally and my research and discussions with those who know have failed to turn up a single line of law which allows the Mayor to set up investigations into its conduct.
Of course, such action is open to the Home Office and MPA.