By any measure it was an extraordinary reaction to a bombshell letter to the Prime Minister.
Published in the Daily Mail and signed by seven high-profile and respected victims of police corruption, incompetence and malpractice, the letter detailed allegations of serious failures by the Met Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, and demanded she leave her post when her current contract expires.
Even as the fallout was dominating the news agenda on national TV and radio and newspaper websites yesterday morning, Lord Ian Blair, a long-time supporter of Dick, was telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the calls for her to go were sexist. He spoke of ‘a sort of whispering campaign against Cressida for some time’.
‘I do think there’s a slight tinge here of the fact this is a woman and I feel there’s a sense of unpleasantness about it that I don’t think is appropriate,’ Lord Blair said primly, adding: ‘I think she is a very, very fine officer.’
This was a breathtaking assumption and deeply offensive to the signatories – and particularly to the two women among them. Baroness Lawrence is the mother of teenager Stephen who was murdered by racist thugs.
Signed by seven victims of police corruption, a letter to the Prime Minister detailed allegations of serious failures by the Met Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick (pictured)
Lady Brittan is the widow of former Home Secretary Leon who was hounded by the police over rape and murder allegations made by serial fantasists even as he lay dying.
So how did it come to this – that the very real grievances of Baroness Lawrence, Lady Brittan and their co-signatories – Alastair Morgan, Paul Gambaccini, Nicolas Bramall, Michael McManus and Harvey Proctor – over their treatment and that of their loved ones by the Met, was reduced to a row about gender?
Of course, it was a trailblazing moment when Cressida Dick was appointed as the first female Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in 2017. But it does not mean that because she is a woman we should ignore her gross failings.
Lord Blair – and it has to be said the BBC’s ‘flagship’ Today programme too – blithely ignored this major intervention into the scrutiny of long-standing police corruption and incompetence, while seemingly accusing two courageous women of sexism.
Incidentally when presenter Nick Robinson listed the signatories of the letter he omitted Baroness Lawrence altogether.
And he also failed to disclose that Lord Blair had been let go as commissioner by the then-London Mayor, Boris Johnson.
During the interview, Lord Blair even laughed as he pointed out that every Met Commissioner has been the target of critical headlines like those in the Mail.
Well it is a pity Lord Blair, who along with Dame Cressida was involved in the operation that led to the mistaken police shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station in 2005, does not know his police history better.
For he entirely misses the grave importance of the Mail’s campaigning on this issue of staggering injustice.
The signatories included (L-R) Baroness Lawrence, Nick Bramall, Alastair Morgan, Harvey Proctor, Michael McManus, Paul Gambaccini and Lady Brittan
While researching my report, The Public and the Police, for the think-tank Civitas in 2008, I interviewed five police forces.
The experience taught me that in the UK we enjoy a unique style of policing that we should not take for granted.
Initiated by the Met’s first two joint commissioners, Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne, in the first half of the nineteenth century, their concept was a police force that relied not on fear but on co-operation with the public.
This co-operation continues to rely on good and honest police behaviour, which, as the renowned historian of British policing, Charles Reith points out, ‘secures and maintains’, for the police, ‘the approval, respect and affection of the public’. It is vital for the health of our democracy that this is maintained.
Today that important relationship between the police and the public is, by any standards, badly frayed. I would argue that, in recent years, a large part of that is down to Dame Cressida.
Lord Blair claims that she is being unjustly criticised over a number of historic cases.
But Lord Ian Blair (pictured), a long-time supporter of Dick, said the calls for her to go were sexist
He has a point – but she also had a golden opportunity to show abject remorse over past mistakes of the Met, to come clean on them, restore its reputation and to demonstrate the force has turned over a new leaf.
A leader with integrity and courage would have grabbed that opportunity. But Dick is not that leader. Instead she has presided over cover-ups, displayed incompetence and entrenched public despair and distrust.
Take just one example: in June a government-appointed panel reviewing the investigation into the 1987 murder of Daniel Morgan – a private eye found dead in a London car park with an axe embedded in his head – accused the Met of placing the protection of its reputation above uncovering the truth.
It branded the Met ‘institutionally corrupt’ and personally criticised Dick for obstructing access to documents the inquiry panel thought vital, and for prolonging the investigation by years.
The panel’s report lambasted her and the culture of the Met, and warned that public confidence may be damaged by its findings. Her response? To dismiss its conclusions.
So what has gone wrong? A member of Special Branch who worked under Cressida Dick admitted doing ‘a little dance of delight’ when he heard she’d been appointed to lead the Met.
‘She cares passionately about her officers,’ he told me recently. ‘But things have not turned out as well as I had hoped.’
As she has moved higher up the ladder, the approachable and kindly boss grew more out of touch and distant, surrounding herself with the ‘wrong’ sort of people.
When he sought to approach her on a vital matter ‘as was my right,’ her staff officers blocked him. Others found the same.
When he remarked on her lack of success to two fellow officers ‘they jumped down my throat’, claiming that Dick put loyalty to her officers first and that loyalty was ‘the number one requirement of a commissioner’.
Of course, it was a trailblazing moment when Cressida Dick (pictured) was appointed as the first female Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in 2017
Their view sums up much of what is wrong with the Met and its current chief. Dame Cressida’s loyalty has come at a price.
She knew that the revelations around Daniel Morgan’s murder, even at this distance, were damaging and dangerous to the Met.
Her first reaction was to block when her first concern should have been her duty to the community she is meant to serve – and to events surrounding Daniel Morgan’s family who have yet to see justice.
The sad reality is that, as the letter published in yesterday’s Mail made clear, Dame Cressida’s actions over many years – from events surrounding the Daniel Morgan and Stephen Lawrence murders to the fiasco of the sex abuse allegations of Operations Midland and Yewtree – have irretrievably damaged the reputation of the force she sought to protect.
Her brief when she was appointed was to modernise the Met and avoid headlines. She has conspicuously failed to do either. She could perhaps have succeeded if she had shown more openness to criticism backed with a new system of governance.
She is hardly likely to do that in the next two years if, as is believed, her contract is extended.
The truth is that we cannot afford more of this inertia. If we are to continue to police by consent, we must avoid the steady drift towards alienation of police and people.
That is why the Mail’s campaigning stance is to be welcomed and must be heard.
Otherwise we face an uncertain future where policing lurches between the ineffective and the authoritarian, where good officers resign and the public react with discontent and lawlessness.
Cressida Dick has accelerated that drift and that is why she has to go.
Harriet Sergeant is an investigative journalist and author of The Public and the Police.