Policing Controversy

On the day I called my by-election last year, I received a handwritten note from Ian Blair, who was then the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. In the midst of unremitting flak from the Westminster glitterati, Blair's note was thoughtful, friendly and encouraging. Given that we had fought tooth and nail over the very issues highlighted in the by-election, it was a surprising communication from a man who was much more complex than his public image suggested. That complexity comes across in this memoir.

Blair was unlucky in being appointed to the post of commissioner immediately after the hugely popular incumbent John Stevens, who was known as a "copper's copper". Blair, by contrast, was seen as a politician's copper, or even as a political copper. The irony was that he was a much better copper than he was a politician, and therein lay many of his problems.

Some of the attacks on him stemmed from his falling into traps a politician would have avoided. For example, he described London's security as "gold standard" only hours before the bombings on 7 July 2005. He talked about the Met "playing out of its socks" after the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, and had to apologise after criticising the media coverage of the Soham murders. He tries to explain all of these remarks in the book.

More seriously, Blair was accused of allowing himself to be used by the Labour government as its mouthpiece and advocate. It is clear from the book that he not only thought this was proper, he thought it was his duty.

The book sheds light on the mindset that resulted in Blair's adversarial relationship with the Tories. It was an attitude that seems to have led him to confuse his duty to serve the government with an obligation to be its advocate. Of course, he could not know the number of times I refused journalistic requests to call for his resignation - right up until the court case on the de Menezes shooting found "systemic failures", a finding for which only the commissioner could be held responsible. At that point, there was no choice. Somebody had to shoulder the responsibility for an innocent man's death, and accepting that responsibility was, in my view, part of the job of the commissioner.

This was not Tory prejudice. He would have had the same treatment if he had been a card-carrying Conservative. Regrettably, Blair cannot see that. Yet even he recognises that it was a disastrous error to instruct police chiefs up and down the country to lobby MPs in favour of detention without charge for 90 days, and that it was a mistake for him to have backed Labour policy on ID cards during a general election.

Some have criticised this memoir for being self-justificatory. But which memoir is not? Some of it certainly reads as selectively as a defence barrister's brief, but by no means all of it. Blair is often thoughtful and honest. What is more, there are parts of his career of which he can be justifiably proud. For instance, he conceived, steered and made a success of the "Safer Neighbourhoods" initiative.

The most selective part of the memoir is his account of the battles over 42- and 90-day detention. Sometimes he just gets the facts plain wrong. He writes that there was a substantive negotiation during the 90-day battle over whether the opposition would agree to 42 or 56 days. There was not. More importantly, he leaves out some critical information about the 42-day debacle.

During his interview on the Today programme, he justified his and other policemen's highly public stance supporting the government by saying: "We had the facts." Maybe. They claimed that the facts of the Heathrow plot justified their argument that 28 days was not enough. They certainly did not make this evidence available to the people who had to make the decision: the members of the House of Commons.

They delivered all sorts of arguments (and some pretty suspect evidence) about how difficult it all was, in these days of computer files, encryption and suspects who spoke foreign languages. They told us that they had no choice but to hold five suspects for 28 days, or just short of it, ignoring that all the most serious charges were brought before 21 days. They slid past the fact that three of the five were innocent, and released before the legal limit. They did not admit that the evidence for the two that they charged was not encrypted or obscure, and that it was available after four and 12 days respectively.This was not elaborated upon in an otherwise pretty comprehensive review.

It is entirely possible that the Met was instructed not to volunteer this information by ministers. If that was the case, I would have hoped that the commissioner would have refused that instruction; just as I would have hoped he would have refused to arrest Damian Green. Sadly, the tenor of the times and the style of the government make such a response from a modern policeman unlikely.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the de Menezes disaster, and tells how a number of Blair's erstwhile protégés appeared to turn against him. It is impossible to reconcile the varying accounts from senior officers about what actually happened in the days following de Menezes's death. Although the book leaves one with some sympathy for Blair, it is hard to shake off the impression of a Met that was afflicted by chaos at the top. All of which encourages the conclusion that he was not a bad man, but rather a good man who got caught up in some pretty bad causes.

David Davis MP was shadow home secretary from 2005 to 2008


Policing Controversy

Ian Blair

Profile Books, 320pp, £20


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This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains