James Ford is a public affairs consultant. He worked as an aide to Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, at City Hall between 2010 and 2012.
Finding the right person to take on the top job in UK policing is no easy task for any Home Secretary. Three of the last four Met chiefs – Ian Blair, Paul Stephenson, and now Cressida Dick – have been forced to resign before their five-year term of office was completed. As the hunt for a new Commissioner gets underway, it is vital that the Home Secretary is aware of the opportunity that rests with her. By taking a long-term strategic view, she can reduce crime in the capital (a positive public policy outcome in itself) and bolster the Government’s credentials as the party of law and order. But if she succumbs to temptation and uses this as a chance to score political points against London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, then she may win the battle but risks losing the war, and may actually damage the Government’s efforts and reputation.
It is vital that Priti Patel avoid making this a row about how Cressida Dick was toppled. It is no doubt tempting to drag Sadiq Khan over the coals regarding the fall of the last Commissioner. Certainly, Khan has many major questions to answer. These concern his judgement: Khan was not only involved in selecting Dick back in 2017 but as recently as last Autumn he was reportedly lobbying the Home Office for Dick’s appointment to be extended by a further three years; but also value for money: the sacking of Cressida Dick after she was granted a contract extension looks set to cost the taxpayer £166,000. There is also a question over whether he acted appropriately or legally in forcing her resignation. The recently announced review by former Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Tom Winsor, into Dick’s forced resignation is likely to address some of these points and will undoubtedly provide Conservatives with fresh ammunition to direct against Khan.
While there may be valid charges for the London Mayor to answer regarding his actions leading up to Dick’s resignation, these miss the point. Khan arguably acted in the public interest and Londoners seem to strongly support the outcome. A YouGov poll in the wake of Dick’s resignation found that 60 per cent of Londoners thought it was right that the Commissioner had resigned. Another YouGov poll – also conducted in February 2022 – found that just 21 per cent of Londoners gave Dick’s performance as Commissioner a positive rating (indeed, only two per cent of residents in the capital said she had performed ‘very well’) whilst 52 per cent rated her performance as ‘fairly bad’ (32 per cent) or ‘very bad’ (20 per cent). Support or admiration for Cressida Dick was noticeably lower amongst those who voted Labour in the last general election. By the end, Londoners felt little love for the beleaguered police chief and critics of Sadiq Khan would do well to pick a better battlefield on which to attack City Hall. Conservatives are unlikely to make themselves more popular in the capital or improve their prospects at the ballot box – in either this year’s borough elections or the next City Hall elections in 2024 – by seeming to criticise the removal of a police chief who had lost public confidence.
Furthermore, weaponizing Sadiq Khan’s recent failings into a reason for excluding him from the process to select the next Met Commissioner will prove counter-productive. In addition to being Mayor, Khan is also London’s elected Police and Crime Commissioner, and, under the law, the Home Secretary must have ‘due regard’ to the mayor’s view in appointing a new Met chief. Cutting the Mayor out of the selection process would, by extension, disenfranchise Londoners from the process. This will do nothing to improve trust or public confidence in the capital’s policing. In purely political terms, excluding City Hall from the selection process not only ignores the law; it also denies the Mayor of London a stake in the success of the next Met Commissioner and will place a major strain on relations between the Met and City Hall from the off, which is unlikely to serve the capital or the Government well. Worse still, it will allow City Hall to launch a campaign of confected constitutional outrage against the Government.
The Mayor of London is vulnerable on the issue of crime – now more than ever. Indeed, it is tempting to conclude that Cressida Dick has proved a useful scapegoat to distract from Khan’s own failings when it comes to policing in the capital. It may have failed to cost the Mayor his job in last year’s London election, but there is growing evidence that rising crime and falling confidence in how the capital is policed is beginning to take its toll on the Mayor’s poll ratings. In January (a few weeks before Cressida Dick was ousted) a poll found that more Londoners felt that the Mayor was ‘doing badly’ (48 per cent) compared to ‘doing well’ (38 per cent). This was the first time that YouGov’s tracking poll had recorded a negative balance since it was launched in 2017.
Furthermore, when asked about specific policy areas, 60 per cent of Londoners said the current Mayor was performing badly on crime (compared to just 25 per cent who said he was doing well on this measure) – making crime Khan’s weakest policy score. What should worry City Hall most is that one in three Londoners who voted Labour in the 2019 General Election said he was performing badly as Mayor. Allowing Khan to blame the Government for his own shortcomings, or act like the injured party in a rigged selection, risks stealing defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to fighting crime in the capital.
The Home Secretary – and Conservatives in general – must avoid making the hunt for a new Commissioner into an argument about process. Similarly, it is important that the hunt is not just about reforming the culture of the Met but also about fighting crime. In any other period, this should go without saying. The Mayor has said that candidates for the vacancy at Scotland Yard ‘must have a plan to restore the trust and confidence of Londoners’. Conservatives know that the best way of restoring confidence in the Met lies in reducing crime – especially violent crime – in the capital and that is the real prize that the Home Secretary must deliver in the coming weeks.