Even a palate jaded by the madness of modern Britain will have found piquancy in Dame Cressida Dick’s two year extension to her term as Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. Dame Cressida will stay in his position until 2024. She has been the UK’s senior police officer since 2017, is the first woman to hold the job, and her tenure has not been a calm one.
Many victims of crime and their relatives, some of them very high profile, have spoken out against the Met Police force for being a secretive and insular organisation that is far more committed to hiding its skeletons than encouraging transparency. Last week, a group which included Baroness Lawrence and Lady Brittan of Spennithorne wrote to the prime minister accusing Dame Cressida of “presiding over a culture of incompetence and cover-up”.
There is a belief the senior leadership of the Met does not have priorities in tune with the population it polices. A vigil for the murdered Sarah Everard was dispersed in a very heavy-handed manner, contrasting with the rather lenient approach the Met has taken to major public protests by anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown groups, even those in contravention of the pandemic lockdown regulations. We are proud of the British tradition of policing by consent, but the constabulary must reassure the general population that it understands its priorities, concerns and fears.
The appointment of the commissioner is within the remit of the home secretary but it must be confirmed by the prime minister. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, apparently agrees with Patel that Dick should be reappointed. This is an odd degree of harmony on a decision which, in purely political terms, seems to have no upsides, no obvious constituency appeased or strategic objective realised.
The Home Office has let it be known that there is no other credible candidate to lead the capital’s force, perhaps as a dog-whistle that this contract extension is faut de mieux. But is that true? Is there really no-one else in the Met’s senior leadership, no chief constable of a regional force, who could be tapped for the top job?
It is a slap in the face for Sir Stephen House, the deputy commissioner; but he had to quit as chief constable of Police Scotland six years ago after a string of operational failures, only returning to the thin blue line in 2018. Neil Basu, the head of counter-terrorism, must have thought he had a chance of promotion as a high-profile, media-savvy copper, but has been passed over. Few territorial chief constables have especially distinguished themselves on a national stage, and it would be challenging to lead the Met without having come through those senior ranks.
Those with longer memories, however, will recall 2011, when David Cameron sounded out Bill Bratton as a potential commissioner. Bratton had run the police departments of Boston, New York and Los Angeles, and was much lauded for his quality-of-life policy and adherence to the broken windows theory. However, his US citizenship proved to be a bar to his taking the role, and Cameron could only take him on as an adviser on security and counter-terrorism. However, it demonstrates a will, for which a way can usually be found.
To go back to first principles, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police must have some kind of connection with the diverse population of London, from the inner city to the leafy suburbs. They must be able to empathise with their priorities and understand what they find reassuring and what they find hostile. The new commissioner should also be absolutely committed to transparency and honesty, whatever the reputational cost.
It seems unlikely that this platonic ideal of a commissioner is Dame Cressida Dick. She has more fine qualities than are perhaps recognised, but she lacks the quicksilver “X factor” which makes great leaders. Maybe there is a qualified successor among the ranks of the UK’s senior police officers, and they will emerge given time. Or maybe, just maybe, the policing of the capital requires a jump-start, a shock to the system which will re-energise police morale and boost the confidence of the public. Nominations in the usual way, please.