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The Politics Interview — Sir Hugh Orde

The coppers’ favourite to become commissioner of the Metropolitan Police talks about the challenges

When the new commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is announced in September, the name that many, if not most, of the Met's 50,000 rank-and-file officers will want to hear is that of Sir Hugh Orde. Orde is one of four candidates in the running for the biggest job in British policing, a vacancy opened by the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson in July. He is competing against Strathclyde's chief constable, Stephen House, the former Merseyside chief constable Bernard Hogan-Howe and the acting Met commissioner, Tim Godwin.

With the possible exception of Godwin, Orde - president and chief constable of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) - has been the most visible in the aftermath of the August riots that broke out across England's cities. And, without exception, he has been the most outspoken.

Responding to criticism of police tactics and decision-making by both David Cameron and Theresa May, Orde told television viewers that the timing of the politicians' return from holiday was "an irrelevance" as far as on-the-ground operations were concerned: "The more robust policing tactics you saw were not a function of political interference, they were a function of the numbers being available to allow the chief constables to change their tactics."

Orde is also critical of Cameron's decision to float the name of Bill Bratton, the former police chief of New York and Los Angeles, as a possible head of the Met, and warns repeatedly about the difficulties and dangers of implementing the coalition's spending cuts.

All this plays well with Britain's 140,000 police officers, but as a pitch to the political masters who will decide his next career move, it is unconventional and perhaps unwise. "He's either being very clever or it's the longest suicide note in police history," a former senior officer says. The force appreciates someone standing up to what it sees as increasing political interference, but "if he doesn't succeed, people will conclude that that's the reason".

For his part, Orde, 53, stands by his "pretty precise and carefully chosen" comments. "[I did not say] that the politicians are irrelevant," he tells me when we meet, 24 hours after the application deadline for the Met commissioner's job has closed and a week after the outbreak of civil unrest has come to an end. "What I said was their presence in relation to tactics is an irrelevance."

At Acpo's modest headquarters just a short walk from Scotland Yard, Orde has a large but sparsely furnished office. The decor is unprepossessing. There's a signed England rugby shirt hanging from one wall, opposite a montage of images of him with a vintage tractor. The scene is of his last passing-out parade as chief constable of Northern Ireland, a post he filled between 2002 and 2009; as a joke, his colleagues drove his beloved tractor on to the parade ground. "Happy days, happy days," he says.

His mother's family were farmers, and the young Orde was poised to go to agricultural college when he realised that if you didn't own land, making a living would be tough. Instead, a careers talk at his school in Godalming, Surrey, set him on the path of policing; but, by his own admission, he remains a frustrated farmer.

During our conversation, I perch on a small black sofa that the previous week had doubled as Orde's bed. Arriving back in London at 3am on Tuesday 9 August from a family holiday in Cornwall he'd had to cut short, he folded up his 6ft-plus frame and got a few hours' sleep on it before attending Cobra, the crisis response committee chaired by the Prime Minister.

As head of Acpo, he was there to represent chief police officers across the 44 forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and to help co-ordinate the strategic operational response to the riots. Orde holds the rank of chief con­stable but has no operational command, something he describes as "rather frustrating". (When we meet, he is in shirtsleeves, but more often than not he appears on our screens in full uniform. A few days after our interview, the Mail on Sunday carries a story claiming that the uniform is fake, "with a 'made-up' plastic badge". His office is reluctant to be drawn on the story and a spokesman simply says: "He's a chief constable. With that comes a uniform.")

May day

Two days on from the Cobra meeting, parliament convened for an emergency session and it was then that Orde felt compelled to address criticisms directed at the police. Among the claims he still believes it is necessary to rebuff is the Home Secretary's assertion that she ordered police forces to cancel leave, mobilise special constables and adopt a "tough" and "robust" response. "I did have a conversation with her about claims that she ordered chiefs to do something, because she can't do that," he says. "I think she fully understands she can't do that." He also expresses "surprise" that May suggested that local police chiefs were "invisible" during the early days of unrest.

But, with the benefit of hindsight, does he accept that the police made mistakes during the initial days of rioting? "Did we have enough officers on the street? The answer to that is no; it's a no-brainer," he says. But, he insists, that does not equate with failure. Rather he puts it down to a "lack of pre-intelligence" about the rioters and looters, whose actions he labels "criminal consumerism". "The reason we didn't know before was because they didn't know before what they were going to do."

It is important, he says, to put what happened in early August into a wider context. "The top two biggest threats to this country are cyber-crime and terrorism, not public order. This was not at any stage, in my judgement, a threat to national security," he says. "The level of disorder and the violence displayed was nothing like we used to deal with routinely in Northern Ireland."

Talking to Orde, you find that conversation invariably returns to the province. His police career began in 1977 and his stint with the Met was notable for the role he played in the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence and in the development of Operation Trident, designed to combat gun crime among black communities in London. But it was the 2000s that shaped his career. First, still as a Met officer, he investigated alleged collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries in Ireland, and then, in 2002, he was appointed chief constable of Northern Ireland. His knighthood came in 2005 after he proved successful in policing the region in the years following the Good Friday Agreement.

During his time there, he had to live with the prospect of being a murder target. What does that constant threat do to a person's psyche? "You just don't worry about it. If you worry about it, you would never do the job," he says, adding, apparently as an afterthought, "They tried to blow me up once."

He is referring to the time he was targeted by Protestant dissidents during the 2005 Belfast Marathon. Luckily, "their intelligence was ­rubbish", he says. Meaning? "I was slower than they thought I'd be." Despite the gallows humour, Orde's time in Ireland has conditioned him to undertake a daily personal security check, though for obvious reasons he won't go into the details. "The point is, I was protected; my cops weren't. Stephen Carroll was shot [while providing cover for a colleague investigating a domestic violence call-out in March 2009]. He didn't have the protection I had."
Does he feel a sense of guilt? "No, not at all. No, the point I was making is, who are the brave people? The brave people are the cops. They haven't got anything. Every time a cop in Northern Ireland opens his or her door, it could be the last time they do it. Every time."

His experience in Ireland also informs his view of the tougher responses demanded of the police during the August riots. I ask him about the calls - made by the Conservative MP and former army colonel Patrick Mercer, among others - for water cannon to be used on the streets. He sighs and yanks his blue tie above his head, the mock hanging an indication of his irritation. "I've used water cannon, I've used baton rounds, I've actually used live fire," he says. "But the lesson from Northern Ireland is if you use them in inappropriate circumstances, or if you use them and you kill people, you will live with the legacy for the next three generations."

Water cannon, he says, "buy you space" - as do baton rounds in "life-threatening situations" - but for either to be an effective tactic, the crowd has to be "static". "What you were facing here were very fast-moving crowds, appearing and disappearing in, for example, West Croydon one minute, in other parts of Croydon the next. Both techniques would have been completely useless," he says. "Just because it might be popular to shoot people or get a water cannon out, that's not a reason to use it."

Orde is ambivalent, too, about other much-cited police methods. Zero tolerance, he argues, "is no less and no more than a tactic", and its success depends on its application. "If zero tolerance leads to stop-and-search . . . and you then raise tensions through the roof, it's actually self-destructive. You need the community . . . We have 140,000 officers in this country (and falling), and at the last count 63.5 million people (and rising). You police by consent or you're finished."

Elsewhere, the suggestion that Bratton might be a candidate for the job at the Met clearly still rankles. Neither Orde nor any other chief constable was consulted before Downing Street put the American's name into the public domain. "In law, I'm the statutory consultee," he points out. Second, he wants to know "why on earth has it got to the stage where we're saying we need someone from a different world and a completely different experience to sort out London? I ask because I don't know the answer."

Bratton may have had successes on both coasts of the US, but the British context is completely different, Orde says. He describes the American as a friend and someone he has known since the 1990s, but adds: "You have two fundamentally different styles of policing. America has 15,000 law-enforcement agencies, about 80 per cent of which would be under 25 people. It's a very different system. You've got sheriffs; you've got elected chiefs in the truest sense of the word; you've got big city forces; everyone's got a badge. It's a very different structure. And you've got big forces - you've got Chicago, 13,000 officers; in LA, 8,000 to 9,000; NYPD, 42,000 or thereabouts. So it's a completely different structure.

“You also have a routinely heavily armed service; you have a level of crime that is just fundamentally different to ours. It's not right or wrong, which I think people seem to have suggested, but LA does . . . have 400 gangs. LA had 157 gang-related murders in 2009; LA is just under four million people." London, by contrast, has about eight million, and yet "if [the head of the Met] had 314 gang-related murders, 500-plus gang-related robberies and about 70 gang-related rapes in a year, my sense is that his head would be on a stick".

Bratton, in turn, has pointed out that Orde was an outsider when he went to Northern Ireland. For now, the American has been ruled out of the Met job but retains the ear of the PM.

New model force

Despite his disagreements with the Home Secretary, Orde says May "has been very good" and notes that it was No 10, not the Home Office, that mooted Bratton's appointment. So, what does he make of Cameron? The former home secretary Charles Clarke used a column in the London Evening Standard on 15 August to suggest that "the Prime Minister's closest Downing Street advisers are viscerally hostile to the police service and brief him accordingly". Orde says he's not familiar enough with those individuals to pass comment, but other senior police sources to whom I spoke say Clarke's characterisation was "spot on".

Where Orde is openly critical is of the way policing is structured. He describes the current model as "suboptimal" - "getting three police authorities together means different budgets, different income streams" - and while he does not offer an ideal number of discrete forces across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, he is convinced it should be far fewer than 44. "We are trying to police 21st-century threats with a 20th-century model," he says. "I raised this with the last government, who were completely against it, and I raised it with this government. This is not a party political point - all politicians are against the notion of even bigger forces . . . The localism agenda is very fixed but, you know, the Met delivers local policing across eight million people. Size is not a function of local policing."

Consolidation might lead to efficiencies, yet Orde does not believe this alone will solve the funding crisis facing the police. The coalition's programme of cuts will leave a black hole of £50m, he estimates, in 2014 and 2015. "We've got to have honest conversations with government about years three and four of the Spending Review," he says. "What's worrying for me [is that] the forces that are going to face the big­gest challenges financially are those that faced the biggest disorder - West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Nottinghamshire."

Orde also believes the vacancy at the Met - a by-product of the phone-hacking scandal surrounding the News of the World - didn't help when disorder struck. Both Stephenson and his assistant John Yates - responsible for counterterrorism - resigned when the story moved closer to the London police operation. The appointment as a media adviser of an ex-NoW executive, Neil Wallis, proved hugely embarrassing. Yet Orde has nothing but praise for his former colleagues. "It's cost two people [their jobs] - 66 years of police experience and one of the best anti-terrorists this country's got," he says. "That's just a simple statement of fact."

He also notes the difference in approaches to corporate responsibility. "Paul went, [Rupert] Murdoch didn't," he says. "One was saying, 'I'm responsible, this was on my watch, I'm therefore resigning.' Against 'It was the others' - which was Murdoch's basic line."

The question now is how to deal with the fallout from the ongoing corruption inquiry that is probing allegations that five Met officers took bribes from the NoW, worth £100,000 in total. Once the report is concluded, the number of officers implicated could be many times greater. Again, Orde reaches for comparisons with Northern Ireland. "It's very straightforward. You've got to deal with the past," he says. "I've dealt with allegations, two years investigating state killings. Yes, it's uncomfortable, but we were determined to grind our way through as many murders as we could, telling people uncomfortable truths."

By the time the inquiry is published, it may be Orde who takes receipt of the first copy as commissioner. He came close to the job in 2009, when Stephenson was appointed as successor to Sir Ian Blair ("I came second," Orde notes), and makes no secret of his desire for the role this time. "I've always loved the Met," he says. "In policing, it's one of the biggest challenges in the world."

In the NS last month, Blair said that the role, once described as the most difficult in UK policing, had 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," he wrote.

It's a poisoned chalice, I suggest to Orde. "It's a challenge," he replies. But the last two commissioners lost their jobs when they didn't want to lose them. "And your point is?" That it's an impossible job. "It's not impossible," he says, with an air of finality.

Of the other candidates, the acting commissioner, Tim Godwin, is "a good number two or three", says an insider, and Stephen House is "very good but hasn't got Ireland on his CV". Hogan-Howe he acknowledges as "clearly the favourite among the Tory party: it's becoming a political post".

Orde, on the other hand, is said to have "the professional credentials and the understanding of counterterrorism. He understands the culture of the Met and has the moral courage to stand up to the politicians".

In 2009, the politicians were looking for continuity. Today they are looking for change. Could this work in Orde's favour? Possibly - but the paradox is that his willingness to challenge them may ensure that he doesn't get the job.

Jon Bernstein is deputy editor of the New Statesman

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold