The police take the hit

Politicians once agreed that policing was not a matter for party advantage. The scandal of recent we

Tony Blair and Jack Straw have a lot to answer for. The job of commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, previously described as perhaps the most difficult in Britain, seems to have become impossible. No Met commissioner had resigned since the 1880s; now two have stepped down in less than two and a half years. Something is seriously wrong.

In the extraordinary events of the past few weeks, the police are undoubtedly emerging as losers. One side in a triangle with politicians and the press, the police have proved unequal in size and influence, and unable to deal with the angles emerging. Amid all the debate about corruption and relationships between police, politicians and journalists, the question that matters most concerns the political oversight of the police. Yet, so far, the coalition government has failed to recognise that its plans to change the arrangements for this oversight have been shown by recent events to be catastrophically wrong.

That the police will lose is inevitable. As Mark Twain said, it is unwise to quarrel with anyone who orders ink by the barrel. But a leader in the Times following Sir Paul Stephenson's resignation on 17 July, and the Murdoch empire's attempt more generally to lay the blame elsewhere, should not go unchallenged.

“Unless a huge amount of what has been alleged these past two weeks is sheer fiction," ran the Times leader, "Britain's police are riven with corruption on an institutional scale. Journalists who bribe policemen are indicative of a flawed industry. Policemen who can be bribed are indicative of a flawed state." The responses to which are: no, the British police are not riven with corruption; yes, journalists who offer bribes are flawed; and yes, a police force whose officers routinely take bribes is indicative of a flawed state - but that isn't the case in Britain.

In 1993, the then commissioner, Paul Condon, described the Met as "the cleanest big-city force in the world". However, he was also among the first in the world to reject the theory that the odd bad apple was infecting the barrel, and to recognise that corruption in the police was not an occasional threat, but a permanent one. Organised crime will always seek to corrupt police officers, a few of whom will fall prey to the temptation. Paul Condon set up the Met's first dedicated anti-corruption unit, different from the complaints units common to all forces. This has been maintained by all his successors, to each of whom, including Sir Paul Stephenson, this unit has reported directly when each was deputy commissioner.

All my senior colleagues and I have been determined to destroy corruption wherever it is found. This is no amateur operation, but one which uses all the techniques that are available to the police to counter organised crime and terrorism against officers who are corrupt and those who would corrupt them. It is realistic rather than complacent to admit that there will always be a very small number of corrupt staff in the Met, but the kind of wide-scale corruption alleged by the Times is simply not true.

On his appointment as commissioner in 1972, Robert Mark remarked that "the basic test of a decent police force is to catch more criminals than it employs, and the Met is failing the test". There is no intelligence - and huge efforts are made to find it - of the kind of networked corruption that Robert Mark cleared out in the 1970s, or of the kind that blighted New York and Sydney in the same period. There are corrupt individual officers, and they get arrested and prosecuted.

The most difficult form of corruption to wipe out will always involve relationships with journalists. How many leak inquiries are ever successful? How many journalists have ever revealed their sources? And yet the News of the World scandal, while uncovering phone-hacking on a vast scale, so far suggests that up to five junior police officers out of the Met's 52,000 staff (and those five may or may not still be serving) may have taken cash from the paper. When they are caught, they will rightly be jailed, just as the journalists who paid or authorised the payments should be. On the matter of corruption, then, keep calm and carry on. British policing is largely clean.

The real problem is the relationship between politics and the police. There can be no question that policing is political. What could be more political than a principal state organisation that is empowered and entrusted to use force on free citizens? However, the great strength of the British policing settlement was that politicians did not interfere for party advantage. That era has now passed, and we should mourn it.

In the 1980s, there was much public concern over a higher-than-normal number of neonatal deaths at Birmingham Children's Hospital. In an acrimonious debate in the House of Commons, the then health secretary was forced to defend his position after being accused of not doing enough to address the problem. A short while later, West Midlands Police accidentally shot a toddler dead during an armed raid. In contrast to the health case, there was no political disagreement over the position adopted by the then home secretary: that this was an operational matter for the local chief constable - a very serious matter indeed, but not one for party politics. The same position would have been adopted by almost all police committees, as police authorities were then called: whatever the persuasion of the majority party on the committees, there was a consensus that party politics should be left at the door of the meeting when it came to policing.

Enter Tony Blair. It was as shadow home secretary in 1993 that he pledged to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". Speaking in the aftermath of the murder of the toddler James Bulger, Blair wanted to steal policing as an issue from the Conservatives. (The Tories believed that policing, like defence, was their natural possession.)

Tough on crime

What followed was a bidding war over toughness between Blair and the home secretary Michael Howard. The part about being "tough on the causes of crime" was lost as antisocial behaviour and violent crime, and how draconian you could be in dealing with them, moved centre stage in British politics for the first time. And there they have stayed ever since. Behind the politicians came the right-wing press, highlighting gruesome crimes, urging "Sarah's law", demonising the hoodie as a successor to the hooligans of the past. No one outdid the red-top end of the Murdoch empire.

By 2007, a MORI poll found that crime was "a bigger source of concern for Britons than the citizens of any equivalent western European nation and even the United States". And yet, on almost any measure, crime had been falling since 1993. Levels of violent crime in England and Wales are very similar to those in other major European countries.

On coming to power in 1997, Blair made Jack Straw home secretary. In 2000, Straw created the role of London mayor as well as the Metropolitan Police Authority. His motives were admirable. Up to that point, the Met's police authority functions had been carried out by the Home Office and that needed to change. However, the politics of London have always been more raw than elsewhere.

The Metropolitan Police Authority was filled with seasoned London politicians who competed for airspace with a master publicist in the then mayor, Ken Livingstone. The most politically important of the mayor's functions was policing, and the only function of the authority was policing, and their meetings were always held in public. After the bombings in London on 7 July 2005, those meetings were broadcast live by a number of national television channels.

Then, in 2008, the law changed so that the mayor was given power either to chair the police authority or to appoint the chair. Already the commissioner answered to the home secretary and, through him or her, to the PM, and to the chair of the police authority: now the mayor was his boss as well. Thus the job of the Met commissioner to lead the policing of London, and to lead his force, became increasingly obstructed by the need to deal with very senior politicians and very serious politics.

Meanwhile, the attitude of the press changed. The days of crime correspondents ended and home affairs editors came to the fore; the press ceased to see the Met as the separate entity it is, treating it as part of Whitehall instead. And the commissioner, whether he wished it or not, began to be treated as a cross between a cabinet minister and a permanent secretary. It is telling, for example, that it was the BBC's chief political correspondent to whom Radio 4 turned when Sir Paul Stephenson resigned. The Met has a very large, reactive press operation, but it does not have the proactive, protective press abilities of a department of state.

I used the press, but rarely socialised with it. This, and some views deemed unsuitable by the red tops, made me the target of very hostile press coverage for most of my tenure at the Met. When Sir Paul Stephenson succeeded me in 2008, he was determined not to be so public. He did not want to be the story, and so one of his strategies as commissioner seems to have been to cultivate the media privately. He is now castigated for that.

Lord Justice Leveson will lead the inquiry into the relationship between the media and the Met, but it seems very likely that he will find that this relationship is only a reflection of the relationship between the media and senior politicians. If so, then it is to the relationship between politics and the Met that attention must be turned. Dealings between the media and the police will follow that. The existing arrangements for the political oversight and governance of the Met have rendered the job of the commissioner apparently undoable and they need to be changed.

The weakest link

Change is about to happen through the proposed abolition of the Metropolitan Police Authority. Unfortunately, policing will be changed for the worse and, even more unfortunately, that change will stretch far beyond the story that is still unfolding in London.

When the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill becomes law next year (as it will, despite attempts by the House of Lords to block it), the Met will be in the hands of two politicians: the Mayor of London and his deputy for policing - a mayor, Boris Johnson, who has already forced the resignation of two commissioners. And the government is determined to replicate the London police system across the country, making every chief constable subject to a similarly capricious oversight by just one elected politician. This is a system modelled on policing in the US - a system that one senior officer there recently described as "the weakest link" in American policing.

In the debate in the Lords that followed Sir Paul Stephenson's resignation, Paul Condon said that this had been perhaps the saddest day in the long history of the Met. He was right. When these events are analysed, in a more dispassionate future, it will be seen that there was no specific reason why Sir Paul Stephenson resigned, other than the overriding one that he could not survive the media firestorm in the absence of political support. This may have been offered to him privately, but was not forthcoming in public because of politicians' own need for survival.

What the police need is a royal commission to sort out what they are for and how they should be governed in the 21st century. Instead, they are going to get elected police commissioners imposed on them. For the police, this isn't a case of Murphy's law. It is a case of O'Leary's law, which says that Murphy is an optimist.

Lord Blair of Boughton was commissioner of the Metropolitan Police from 2005-2008. He was made a cross-bench life peer in 2010