Interview - Sir Ian Blair

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair on terror threats, cash-for-honours, and why he expec

Sofa government is not for Sir Ian Blair. The chocolate Dralon seating nook favoured by his predecessor, Lord Stevens, has been banished from the office of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. In its place is an austere table and some hard chairs. It looks more businesslike, I say, and Blair appears to take this as a compliment. Round here, any plaudits must seem scarce. The 24th commissioner is in the third year of a tenure that has, more than once, been portrayed as so shaky that he risks following the brown settee into exile.

The killing of the innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, prompted calls for his resignation, as did the terror raid in Forest Gate which resulted in one shooting, no charges, community unrest and a bullish defence from Blair, who says that the intelligence was such that, had he not gone in, "I wouldn't be in this office and I wouldn't deserve to be." The ongoing cash-for-honours investigation has provoked fury against Scotland Yard. If some media have been harsh judges of Ian Blair, so have internal critics (not least, I imagine, his old boss Lord Stevens) who saw him as over-intellectual and unclubbable. He must have had a rough time.

"Yes, I think that's right, but you do start to get used to it and put it to one side. I've watched all the commissioners I've known go through tough stages. I don't think I'm any different, but we are in a more angry world than ever before, so one gets caught up in the general political discourse." His baptism into 21st-century realpolitik came in the radio interview when he declared the Met "the envy of the policing world in relation to counter-terrorism". Shortly afterwards, the 7/7 bombs exploded.

The July killings have, inevitably, overshadowed his incumbency. Earlier this week, a "secret" government dossier was reported as claiming the terror threat now facing the UK from al-Qaeda is the worst since 9/11. Would he agree? "Yes, I would. There is no doubt that the volume of what appear to be terrorist conspiracies and the scale of the ambition of those involved has been rising. It certainly is difficult at the moment.

"It is absolutely inevitable that people will continue to [try to] cause mass atrocity in the UK. The question is whether or not we can stop them. We are having some tremendous successes, together with . . . the security services. But that doesn't mean we'll always be successful."

It seems to him "blazingly obvious" that the forthcoming Olympics will be a potential target for Britain's homegrown al-Qaeda operatives. Transport systems and the City are also, in his view, at particular risk. "One of al-Qaeda's ambitions is to 'bleed the west dry', and I don't think that's a blood image. Some of the things going on here are about attacking our economic viability."

Can he confirm a claim, apparently disclosed by his predecessor in a new documentary, that al-Qaeda planned to assassinate Tony Blair in front of the Queen at her Golden Jubilee? "I think what I would rather do, as the serving commissioner, is just to say that I never talk about specific threats," he says. As well as offering dark hints about plots foiled, he has been eager for changes in law and practice.

His biggest worry is the delay in getting alleged terrorists before a court and the "extraordinary" length of trials. He cites a shortage of suitable interview rooms at Belmarsh high security prison, and a lack of purpose-built courts, such as Woolwich, where the 21/7 trial is currently being conducted. Is he hopeful that parliament will eventually grant his wish to hold people for 90 days without charge? "My sense is that it [90 days] is deliverable only if there is political consensus, which there certainly isn't at the moment." Even so, he casts a seemingly envious glance at Germany, "where prosecutors have the right to preventative detention of a year".

Blair on Blair

Part rigorous enforcer, part social liberal, Blair possesses, at 53, the grandeur of hard-won status, or too much adversity. I address him as "Sir Ian", and he does not tell me to drop the "Sir". Once cavalier about the media, whom he described as "institutionally racist" and accused of over-blowing the Soham murders, he has grown wary. After a while he relaxes and shows me his picture of his icon, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain - a Maine professor who found glory at the Battle of Gettysburg. "If you charge downhill with a bayonet, there's no going back," Blair says.

The cash-for-honours probe might fit that metaphor. Long after suggestions of a preliminary report last September, the investigation grinds on. The initial focus, the 1925 Honours Act, has been widened to include possible conspiracy. Tony Blair, twice questioned, is the first serving prime minister to be embroiled in such an inquiry, and the Met's critics, denouncing the leakers and briefers of the police, say the affair is fuelling political distrust.

Blair, who has renounced any direct link with the investigation because of his official links to his namesake, begins by brick-walling. "This is a live inquiry, and it's just not something I am going to comment on." Can he say how long it will be live for? "I cannot." Does he have a mole in Downing Street? "I'm just not going to talk about it," he says, but he cannot resist the temptation. "There are an awful lot of allegations that the Metropolitan Police is leaking around this inquiry, but if you look at the journalists who are writing about it, they are not the traditional police contacts. I don't think we're leaking at all, [but] somebody's speculating."

Does he mean Downing Street? "I'm just not going to go there . . . Everyone has to wait until the end of this." If it's inappropriate for him to comment further, then it must be wrong that close allies of the Prime Minister have criticised police tactics? "People will do what they want. I am responsible for what the Met does, and the Met isn't doing it."

Still, the question hangs as to whether the Prime Minister could conceivably face charges. Does Blair see any taboos in an inquiry in which his namesake has, thus far at least, simply been interviewed as a witness and without caution? Is anyone perceived as above the law? "If we take this as a general principle, then no. No one is above the law." So Tony Blair would not be seen as untouchable? "I'm not saying any more. The principle remains the same."

The Commissioner himself does seem more leaked against than leaking. The long-awaited, and imminent, report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes is believed to clear Blair over charges that he lied about when he knew that the wrong man had been killed. This comes as no surprise to him.

"What on earth would have been my motivation for lying? I believe I will be entirely exonerated of misleading the public. I've known that ever since it happened." He is clearly furious at the time the inquiry has taken.

"When it's over, we will have to sit down with the Home Office and the IPCC and work out why it took so long. It's ironic," he adds bitterly, "that you're asking me why cash-for-honours is taking so long . . . Still, I don't think it's very clever of me to criticise the people writing the report, and I think I'm probably in that place now."

Gun crime and punishment

But even assuming he is fully cleared, won't he be caught either way? For him not to be told of such a catastrophic error for 24 hours, when other officers clearly did know, seems damning of his management skills."The word I would disagree with is 'know'," he says. He also takes issue with the report's supposed finding, that the delay in telling Blair was "incomprehensible". That is "completely wrong," he says. "When all this emerges, a lot of people will be giving testimony that it wasn't incomprehensible."

He means, I would guess, that the traumatic circumstances of an alleged terror plot somehow blurred normal priorities and lines of commun ication. "That day, and the day before, presented us with the most difficult problem that my service has ever seen in peacetime," he says. The other version is that Blair wasn't told because, according to one unnamed officer, he "takes bad news very badly".

"My response is that there have been an awful lot of brave people around me in the last two years. I am certainly not a person who receives bad news with difficulty." In fairness, he has also had some good news. Crime in the metropolis is dropping overall, he has done genuinely good work in engaging with minority communities, and domestic violence murders are down to 12 so far in 2006/7, which he sees as a triumph. Drugs remain a major problem, but he hints, with some reservations, that he may be considering calling for heroin to be prescribed on the NHS.

"We have to have a proper discourse . . . Two thirds of people coming into custody test positive for opiates . . . There is no doubt that drugs lie at the heart of much gun crime, though not all. I would be interested to see how it [prescription heroin] would work. Let's put it that way."

Naturally, he is worried at the fatal shootings of three teenage Londoners within 11 days. "We are seeing a gradual fall in the age group involved. Somehow, as a society, we have to sort things out." His prescription is minimum five-year jail terms for 18 to 21-year-olds, with very young gun-carriers treated as children at risk rather than criminals. "If they [gangs] are giving guns to five-year-olds, the community should rise up in horror."

In all his career, he is "most proud" of revolutionising treatment for rape victims. His interest began when, as a chief inspector of 25, he failed to secure a conviction at the Old Bailey for the young victim of an alleged rape. "There was no victim support for her; nothing. I did the only thing which I could think of, for which I'm sure I should have been disciplined, which was to take her home and let her sleep in my spare room. I was just married, so my wife was somewhat surprised."

That human side of policing is how Blair would most like to be remembered. "On my first day, I was asked what I hoped my legacy would be. I said I hoped the people of London would take the Met to their hearts a little bit more." With the de Menezes report out soon, and cash for honours dragging on, the calls for Sir Ian Blair to leave his spartan office seem far from over.

His future may hang on whether those outside, and inside, his police force have taken the 24th Commissioner sufficiently to their hearts.