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  • Writer's pictureDanny Shaw

The story behind Cressida's new contract

"There comes a time in any organisation when it becomes clear that it would benefit from new leadership and new clarity of purpose. I believe that time is now."

That statement is from Boris Johnson, explaining the need for a change of direction at the top of the Metropolitan Police. Not in 2021 - but in 2008.

On October 1st that year, five months after being elected Mayor of London, Johnson took over as Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority. His first act was to call the Met Commissioner in for a chat.

Sir Ian Blair had held the post for almost four years and was hoping that his contract, which was due to end in 2010, would be extended. But Johnson made it clear he had no confidence in him; the Commissioner's position was untenable and he resigned the next day.

Sir Ian (now Lord Blair of Boughton) had been under attack from sections of the media for most of his term of office. It's hard to believe, perhaps, but the negative press coverage he received was far more widespread, personalised and vicious than the criticism of the current incumbent, Dame Cressida Dick.

Johnson's move, however, did not end the way he would have intended. He had thought through the decision to remove Sir Ian without giving enough consideration as to who his replacement should be. Sir Paul Stephenson, who was appointed in 2009 after holding the post temporarily, never looked comfortable in the role. He struggled with ill health and spent much of the time firefighting after the force was engulfed in controversy over the phone hacking affair and links between Scotland Yard and News International. He resigned in July 2011.

That recent history, and Johnson's part in it, is likely to have been a key factor in the decision to renew Dame Cressida's contract for two more years. It's all very well calling time on a Metropolitan Police Commissioner, but you have to be sure their successor can handle the heat. Could Johnson, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and the Crime and Policing Minister, Kit Malthouse, who was London's Deputy Mayor for Policing during the Blair and Stephenson years, be sure of that?

There are several talented chief constables who might have been suitable for the job, but some do not want the aggravation and intrusion that comes with it, while arguably the leading potential candidate, Met Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, is thought to be out of favour in Marsham Street. For Patel and Johnson, the danger of an open and fair selection process was that Basu might come out on top.

There is also, among Johnson and Malthouse in particular, an appreciation of the qualities Dame Cressida brings to a hugely challenging policing environment; they have seen her at close-hand during their time at City Hall and more recently in government. The 60 year old commands respect through her intelligence, compassion and quiet authority, notwithstanding some alarming misjudgments, particularly on the Met's apparent reluctance to co-operate with the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel and its defensive response to the report.

For the Government, there were other advantages to keeping the Commissioner in post. She does not seek the limelight; she is not trying to out-do Ministers on law and order; she has never been one to play politics or interfere in decision-making. For an image-conscious and publicity-hungry home secretary this has huge benefits. No doubt Dame Cressida will take the blame for the next London crime fiasco - and that is also not unhelpful for Patel and the Home Office. It suits Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London who supported the Commissioner's appointment and despite a couple of disagreements remains largely on the same page as her on key issues.

Of course, she has her opponents; the Daily Mail brought together a selection of high-profile figures who've suffered injustice at the hands of the police. Although Dame Cressida's involvement in some of the cases was peripheral, the thrust of what they were saying has force: the Met needs to change and change starts by replacing the leadership.

The voices demanding her removal, however, are in the minority. Crucially, the Commissioner has not, in football parlance, 'lost the dressing room'. She remains popular among the Met's 43,000 officers and staff, with the local Police Federation issuing an unprecedented statement of support. "We know her to be an ethical, courageous and highly competent police leader who genuinely cares about London, its citizens and her officers," it said.

The Government has recognised the extent of that extraordinary backing; in the last 30 years only Sir John Stevens has been as popular among the rank-and-file of the Met. Ministers are also aware of the challenging circumstances in which Dame Cressida has led the force - a series of terror attacks in 2017 and the pandemic for the past 18 months. When she finally departs in April 2024, she will have been the joint third longest serving Commissioner since the Second World War.

Until that point, the Home Office will have time to identify and nurture possible successors. They may well take a close look at Chief Constable Steve Watson from Greater Manchester Police; Matt Jukes, who recently moved from South Wales Police to the Met; and Dame Lynne Owens, Director General of the National Crime Agency. Other candidates will doubtless emerge, too, and although there is always a clamour for an 'outsider' the reality is that to do the job of Commissioner you need to be steeped in policing and, at the very least, have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the Met, which is best gained from working there.

That is not to say that the organisation can stand still; I have argued before that it must shed its rather inward-looking approach and start listening more to people with dissenting views and fresh ideas. With Dame Cressida Dick having secured the vote of confidence that eluded most of her predecessors she must start that process now.

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