It’s an impressive list of the great and the good of policing: Dame Lynne Owens, Martin Hewitt, Sir Steve House, Dame Sara Thornton, Sir Dave Thompson. Each would undoubtedly be on the shortlist to be the next Metropolitan Police Commissioner - if they had applied for the position. But none of them has.
The race for the most high profile police role in the UK is notable less for the likely candidates and more for the absence of distinguished policing figures. For some, the timing isn’t right; for others, the sense is that given the intensive 24/7 scrutiny and a toxic political set up, it is simply not worth it.
It is a near impossible job which has ended badly for five of the past six Commissioners. Sir Paul Condon left under a Macpherson Inquiry cloud; in 2008, Boris Johnson, who’d just become London’s Mayor, forced out Sir Ian Blair; his replacement, Sir Paul Stephenson, quit after less than three years as the phone hacking scandal erupted; Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe lasted longer but might have stayed on if the Met's inquiry into an alleged Westminster paedophile ring hadn't unravelled, while Dame Cressida Dick’s two-year contract extension was ripped up when Sadiq Khan, London’s current Mayor, lost patience with her attempts to change the culture of the force.
In the last 30 years, arguably the only Commissioner to have walked out of New Scotland Yard with an enhanced reputation was Sir John Stevens. He had some luck on his side. During his tenure, between 2000 and 2005, there were no smartphones or social media, resources were flooding into policing and the same political party was in control in Westminster and at City Hall. Despite a few bumps in the road, the press - the red tops, in particular - warmed to Sir John, labelling him ‘Captain Beaujolais’, and some of the more difficult questions went unasked.
How different it is now. A messy street confrontation with a cop can go viral in minutes; a misspoken word by a senior officer will be endlessly replayed; everyone with an opinion on the police has a platform to voice it, without the filter of Fleet Street. Twitter and the rest have made the environment for those entrusted with enforcing the law far more testing - but the political challenges are even greater.
The next Met Commissioner will be selected by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who is required to consult the Mayor of London. They will both meet the final contenders. The Commissioner must retain the confidence of both political leaders to stay in post, so, in practice, the Mayor would have to be content with the Home Secretary’s choice for the appointment to proceed. In previous years, that has not been an issue, either because the preferred candidate has stood out from the rest or because the two politicians involved in the decision were broadly in sync. That is not the case this time.
First, there is no consensus among policing experts as to who should get the job - and the field is narrow. Among those believed to be interested are ex-Met Assistant Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley; Devon and Cornwall Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer; and Nick Ephgrave, the former Surrey chief who's now at Scotland Yard. Kevin Hurley, the outspoken former Met police commander, who was Police and Crime Commissioner at Surrey and is now a global strategic policing adviser, has confirmed that he has applied, but he is very much an outside bet. Of course, one of them, or someone else, may emerge as the front-runner but it is far from clear who could satisfy the exacting requirements for the post-holder set out by the Home Office in its recruitment pack. Matt Jukes, who’s currently in charge of counter-terrorism at the Met, and Police Scotland head Iain Livingstone, considered applying but are thought to have decided against it.
Second, it is hard to imagine Priti Patel and Sadiq Khan agreeing about who is the most suitable person to take over. They are at opposite ends of the political spectrum and rarely see eye-to-eye about anything of substance - and that was before Khan angered Patel over his handling of Dame Cressida’s departure (she has ordered a review of what happened which is likely to report back in the coming weeks).
Although the Home Office has set out a timetable for the recruitment, with interviews with the Permanent Secretary to be held before the end of May, I wouldn’t be surprised if the process takes far longer. Patel has developed a habit for dragging out important appointments. Dame Lynne announced she was retiring as Director-General of the National Crime Agency (NCA) in September last year; the vacancy was advertised five months ago, but there is still no word as to who has got the job. The calibre of the candidates, who include Met Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, is not in question, so what is the hold up?
Let us hope that Patel is not playing games with the NCA appointment. The job should go to the person who merits it - as should the post of Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the political climate is feverish. It has already put off some excellent people from applying to be the next Commissioner. When you consider that it is the toughest, but most influential, role in policing, that is not a good place to be.