The road from Midland
Graham from Bushey started it.
He was the caller whose question on a radio phone-in about the Metropolitan Police Commissioner set Whitehall and Scotland Yard into a Friday frenzy.
The LBC listener from Hertfordshire asked the Home Secretary, Priti Patel: “Considering her role in Operation Midland and the Carl Beech affair, do you still have confidence in Cressida Dick - is she fit for purpose?”
That morning, Dame Cressida had been the focus of a story in the Daily Mail relating to the force’s disastrous inquiry into bogus claims of child sexual abuse and murder involving an alleged Westminster paedophile ring. Beech, the accuser, who was once known only by the pseudonym "Nick", is now serving an 18-year jail term for perverting the course of justice.
The Mail article was clearly in Patel’s mind as she dealt with the question.
“This is a ‘live’ issue, it’s very topical right now, it’s in the news,” she said, breathlessly. But over the course of exchanges lasting almost three minutes with the programme’s presenter, Nick Ferrari, the Home Secretary failed to give the Commissioner the endorsement you would expect.
“I’m working with the Commissioner...the Commissioner does a lot of great work and she oversees the largest police force in the country,” is as good as it got.
Patel is someone who says what she thinks. On the same show, for example, she unequivocally condemned the Black Lives Matter protests and ‘taking the knee’. If she had confidence in the Met Commissioner why wouldn’t she say so? Ferrari prompted her several times but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
Within a couple of hours, Number Ten was in ‘reverse ferret’ mode, a spokesman declaring that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary had “absolute confidence” in Dame Cressida. Downing Street had realised what the Home Secretary, perhaps, failed to appreciate: that without publicly backing her the Commissioner’s job would be untenable. That’s because, unlike other police chiefs in England and Wales, the Met Commissioner must have the Home Secretary’s full support to stay in post. The appointment is determined by the Home Secretary, following consultation with the Mayor of London, and the Commissioner is accountable to the Home Secretary, along with the Mayor, for delivering policing in the capital. If the boss doesn’t have confidence in you, it’s time to go.
So, what was the message Patel was trying to send?
It surely wasn’t part of a calculated mission to force Dame Cressida out. Although the forthcoming Mayoral election is bound to create friction on policing between Labour and the Conservatives, a row between the Home Office and Scotland Yard about the Commissioner's suitability for office - in the middle of a pandemic - is not in the Government’s interests. Besides, Dame Cressida has got only ten months left on her contract.
Neither do I think that it was an expression of wider dissatisfaction at the Yard’s performance. Although Patel may be unhappy with certain aspects of policing in London, notably the way last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations were initially dealt with, the Home Secretary has been generally hugely supportive of the Met and its officers.
No, Patel’s reticence when asked to support Dame Cressida was a reflex, an instinctive response to the Mail’s reporting about Operation Midland.
That morning the paper had published a scathing ‘open letter’ from the retired High Court judge, Sir Richard Henriques, who conducted an inquiry into Midland in 2016. In the letter, sent to the Home Secretary, Sir Richard’s exasperation at the Met’s response to his findings drips from the page. He says he doesn’t know whether any of the 25 recommendations he made have been accepted or not. On the face of it, that’s a pretty extraordinary state of affairs. The former judge adds that despite being told by the Commissioner that work was underway on reforms he has heard nothing from her for 13 months.
Sir Richard goes onto to say that he does not believe the “full truth” has been exposed about decisions on Midland that saw “so many innocent individuals suffer” as a result of Carl Beech’s “wicked lies”. He calls for an outside force to look into, firstly, the conduct of the Met officers who were responsible for search warrants during the operation, and secondly, the policing watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), which exonerated them following its own investigation.
The letter makes for powerful reading and Patel must consider it carefully. Too often in the past ministers have set up inquiries and investigations in haste to appease influential figures and avoid difficult headlines. The Home Secretary must decide what a fresh inquiry would achieve: is it likely to come to a different conclusion about the officers? Will it unearth serious wrongdoing at the Met that escaped Sir Richard’s eyes, or even a cover-up? Is there a prospect of finding malpractice at the IOPC?
Patel would do well to bear in mind the fact that the Commons Home Affairs Committee is currently carrying out an inquiry into the way complaints about police conduct are dealt with. The role and remit of the IOPC is central to the inquiry; the Committee, under the laser-sharp leadership of the Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, would be a good vehicle to explore Sir Richard's concerns about the watchdog’s investigation into Operation Midland.
Many of the points Sir Richard raises could also be addressed swiftly in the form of a progress report from Scotland Yard. One controversial issue he raised four years ago - about whether officers should automatically “believe” people when they make historical allegations of sexual abuse - was finally dealt with last August when the College of Policing published updated advice for officers. The police service would do well to publicise the guidance again, as well as details of other changes that have been made since the Midland fiasco. If any of his proposals have been rejected, police leaders should say so and explain why. The Met has apologised for what happened many, many times - it’s time they started telling us what they are doing right.
As for Dame Cressida Dick, it’s hard to find anything of substance that’s appeared in the past week which adds to what was already known about her involvement in the operation. She has previously said that she accepts partial responsibility for what went wrong because she was overseeing Midland in the two months after it was established, in 2014. The Commissioner has also acknowledged that the phrase “credible and true”, ill-advisedly and calamitously used by a senior detective to describe Beech’s account of abuse and murder, should have been, but was not, corrected before she left the Met for the Foreign Office in 2015. Other key failings occurred after she had gone and before she returned in 2017. If the force has dragged its feet since then, as Sir Richard claims, that must be put right immediately.
It’s understandable that Priti Patel might have been disturbed by the latest developments in the Midland case. She was right to take Sir Richard Henriques’ letter seriously. But she was wrong to undermine the Met Commissioner in the way she did. Not only was it thoughtless and disrespectful it risked damaging the most important relationship in policing. Whatever disagreements they may have, however different their personalities may be, the Home Secretary and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner should present a united front, particularly at this most challenging of times. When Graham from Bushey called up, Patel should have given Dame Cressida her backing. That she didn’t tells you much more about the calibre of our Home Secretary than it does about the competence of the Met Commissioner.