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28 January 2022

Jonn Elledge

Is the Met incompetent or does it just not care?

The force's actions over Partygate will look to many people like a cover-up.

First, the Metropolitan Police officers in Downing Street either failed to notice or failed to intervene in parties that were clearly taking place and just as clearly illegal. Then the Met declined to investigate them, even as the embarrassment of evidence grew to comically large proportions. Then they decided that they would investigate them, but that this would require Sue Gray’s report on the parties – which could decide the political fate of the Prime Minister, and which we’ve all been awaiting for weeks – to be heavily redacted first, “to avoid any prejudice to our investigation”. All in all, it’s been a great ride.

How publication of a Cabinet Office report of the exact scale and timing of the assorted piss-ups in Downing Street would prejudice any such investigation is not immediately clear. Breaches of Covid regulations are summary offences, which can be prosecuted without trial. There’s thus no risk of prejudicing a jury, which is the normal reason for keeping such information out of the public eye. Perhaps the Met’s thinking is that the investigation could yet uncover rather larger offences, of the sort where such factors come into play. Perhaps they’re worried Gray’s report, and the acres of newsprint that’ll follow it, might act as a helpful clue as to which evidence any suspects might wish to destroy. Perhaps, even – we can but dream – arrests are about to be made. There’s a lot of speculation abroad, but fundamentally we just don’t know.

It is hard to avoid noticing, though, that if the police did want to lend a helping hand to the wobbling government, they could hardly have played their hand better, declining to investigate despite mounting public rage, then changing their minds in a manner that defuses a looming crisis. The most generous reading here is that the force has bumbled its way into a situation where many people will fear it’s a cover-up. Hardly a great result. 

This may be the result of incompetence – there’s a lot of it about. Then again, it might simply be that the Metropolitan Police simply doesn’t really care what the public thinks about it. That would certainly fit with its other recent behaviour – the way, for example, it sent officers in to break up a vigil for a woman who had been murdered by a serving police officer, being filmed manhandling women in the process. It would fit, too, with the fact its commissioner, Cressida Dick, was allowed to remain in post despite being personally censured for obstruction by the independent inquiry into the 1987 murder of Daniel Morgan, a private detective. That inquiry, incidentally, described the Met as “institutionally corrupt”. 

Some commentators have described Dick as incompetent. I’m not so sure. If she’s trying to prosecute crime, or ensure public confidence in the force over which she presides, then her record is hard to defend. If, on the other hand, she sees her role as working with senior politicians to protect the institutional interests of the Metropolitan Police, then you can argue she’s doing a bang-up job.

At any rate, this week has been another stinker for public confidence in a police force that – like the Prime Minister its officers are detailed to protect – seems to keep rolling from crisis to crisis. But unlike the existence of those Downing Street parties, there’s remarkably little evidence that they care.

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