Over the coming days we will see the Metropolitan Police at its very best. As the world descends on London for the coronation of King Charles, the force will execute a plan that has been decades in the making. As the past year has shown, there are few tasks the Met excels at more than protecting the public and dignitaries when the capital hosts huge occasions of state.
Meanwhile, the day-to-day policing of London goes on – and it is here that the Met’s difficulties start. It is now eight months since Sir Mark Rowley started his term of office as Commissioner of the force. He has started to make progress on standards and conduct within it, unearthing more rotten apples along the way. However, as he well knows, neither that nor the successful policing of the coronation will be nearly enough.
Despite the Met’s belated success in dealing with protestors ‘slow-walking’ on London’s roads and bridges, Westminster has over recent weeks experienced days of serious disruption from groups including Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion. Also, most troublingly, too little appears to have changed when it comes to the practical business of fighting crime and disorder.
Last week the Commissioner appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee. It was his first testimony there following the publication of Baroness Casey’s excoriating review of our largest police force. The hearing was far from a success, with one exchange between Rowley and MP Lee Anderson going viral.
There will be many inside the Met who will be telling Sir Mark that his combative response was just what was required. But in reality the Commissioner’s performance was very far from ideal.
Whether Sir Mark likes it or not, Commons Select Committee members are there to ask questions, articulate their judgements and hold public officials to account. It is the job of unelected officials, no matter how eminent, to answer the questions asked of them.
Long before the events of the now viral 90-second clip from the Committee, the Commissioner had already failed to give clear answers in response to entirely reasonable questions. Given the catastrophic failings of the Met in recent years, Rowley would have done well, in his irritation, to keep in mind that the MPs questioning him were merely reflecting the feelings of a large proportion of the public.
If there were any doubts beforehand, following last week’s hearing Sir Mark’s honeymoon period with those responsible for holding him to account is well and truly over. This is not a question of party politics. The crisis which has enveloped the Met is a perfect storm which goes beyond the traditional politics of right and left. In his efforts to apparently try and please everyone, the Commissioner risks satisfying no one.
When he was appointed, Sir Mark was by far the best applicant for the job. Whether his eventual successor is appointed from within policing or, more radically, from outside the police entirely is a question for another time. Certainly, compared to the alternatives currently available in British policing, Rowley remains the best man for the job.
But the Commissioner must remember that the most difficult task for anyone at the top of an organisation is often the same. Given the power he wields over those around him, it is inevitable that most will only tell him what they think he wants to hear. ‘Those terrible Committee members were awfully rude, sir.’ ‘You were absolutely right to stick up for us, sir.’ ‘Everyone’s right behind you, sir.’
Over the last week these are just the sort of comments that I’ve heard from some of my own former colleagues in the Met. I must say however, that they are perilously wrong.
That the Met has gone so catastrophically awry in recent years can, at least in part, be explained by the ‘wilful blindness’ of the organisation’s senior leaders. They were either not willing to see or were not being told the truth of what was actually going on.
In an organisation as big as London’s police force almost everything the Commissioner and his deputy see and hear is transmitted through an endless layer of middle management and bureaucracy. Every time the Chief Paperclips Officer or the Deputy Assistant Commissioner for Strategic Truth Telling deliver their presentations they will invariably describe how incredibly well everything is going.
The Commissioner should not make the mistake of enjoying the warmth and support he may have got from his colleagues at New Scotland Yard following the Select Committee hearing. Nor should he be seduced by the praise the Met will deservedly receive for its work this week in policing the coronation.
Overly focusing on the feelings of insiders rather than the public is the first step towards the insularity that eventually led to the downfall of his predecessor, Dame Cressida Dick. By the end she still had a great many supporters inside policing even as the public and politicians had long deserted her.
In selecting the people around him the Commissioner needs to make sure that he’s chosen individuals who will tell him when he’s made a misstep. Last week’s appearance at the Select Committee was one of them. Anyone telling him different is part of the problem.