One principle Boris Johnson has consistently applied since his election as mayor last May has been to keep interviews with the media to a minimum. Anyone who witnessed his inept performance on the Politics Show on Sunday (YouTube video here), as he tried to bluff his way through pointed questions about his role in removing Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Ian Blair, could only conclude that interviews with the mayor are likely to become an even rarer commodity in future.
Johnson repeated his ludicrous claim that Sir Ian had voluntarily decided to stand down rather than being forced out – an assertion reportedly dismissed by Blair himself in the succinct phrase “absolute s***”. The reality, to further quote Sir Ian’s reported remarks, is that Johnson “made it absolutely clear that he was determined to bring about a change of leadership, and in the circumstances I had no choice but to comply”.
At least in the Politics Show interview Boris spared us the equally bogus claim that he consulted widely before his final meeting with the commissioner that resulted in the latter’s resignation. In fact, there is no evidence that the mayor’s “consultation” extended very much beyond Tory Assembly member Kit Malthouse, his deputy mayor for policing – and now earning an additional salary as “full-time” vice-chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority.
Indeed, if the Daily Mail is to be believed (see “Cameron kept in the dark on Boris’s one-man coup to oust Met chief Blair”, 4 October), Johnson didn’t even see fit to discuss this highly controversial and potentially politically damaging decision with the leader of his own party.
Moreover, the timing of Sir Ian’s dismissal – a matter of days before Johnson was due to chair his first meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority – was clearly intended to present the MPA with a fait accompli and pre-empt any debate by its members over Sir Ian’s future. As Len Duvall, Johnson’s predecessor as MPA chair, observed, it seems that Boris “simply appointed himself judge, jury and executioner”.
Despite being repeatedly asked for an explanation by Politics Show interviewer Jon Sopel, Johnson refused to offer any justification for ousting Sir Ian. In his speech to the Tory party conference, however, he gave us an insight into his reasoning. Echoing the language of Melanie Phillips and other hard-right commentators who have long campaigned for the removal of a man who represents the “political correctness” (i.e. support for anti-racist initiatives and multiculturalism) they so despise, Boris condemned the development of a so-called “grievance culture” among members of minority communities in the Met on Sir Ian’s watch.
One particularly revealing moment in the Sopel interview was when Johnson was confronted with the central charge that by forcing Sir Ian from his post he is guilty of politicising the job of Metropolitan police commissioner. Hasn’t a precedent been set, he was asked, whereby future commissioners will be hired and fired dependent on their political acceptability to whichever party occupies the office of mayor?
“Balderdash, codswallop, tripe, codswallop, absolute codswallop”, was Boris’s blustering response to a charge he described as “on the wilder shores of fantasy”. Presented with a statement by the chief constable of West Yorkshire, Sir Norman Bettison, that he has decided not to apply for the post of Met commissioner because he will not accept “political interference” from the mayor, Johnson was left shifting uncomfortably in his seat and clearly fuming that anyone should have the nerve to question his judgement.
The accuracy of the charge of political interference has only been underlined by Johnson’s proposal that the appointment of a permanent replacement for Sir Ian should be delayed until after the next general election – in the optimistic expectation of a victory for his own party – so as to ensure that the new Metropolitan police commissioner will be someone who meets with the political approval of an incoming Tory home secretary.
Along with other members of the Labour Group on the London Assembly I hold the view that the Met cannot be allowed to drift without clear leadership until May 2010, or whenever the general election takes place, and that the appointment of Sir Ian’s successor must, as with previous appointments to the post, be made exclusively on merit, not on the basis of party politics. I am confident that Jacqui Smith – and it is the home secretary, not the mayor of London, who has the constitutional authority to appoint the Metropolitan police commissioner – will reject Boris’s irresponsible and politically-motivated delaying tactics.
During the mayoral election campaign Johnson’s right-wing cheerleaders at the Evening Standard portrayed Ken Livingstone as an arrogant individual, corrupted by power, out of control, and unaccountable to anyone but a small group of overpaid political cronies. This malicious caricature of his predecessor’s administration increasingly appears to be an uncannily accurate description of the regime over which Boris himself now presides at City Hall. The role of Labour’s London Assembly members in reining in the mayor and his advisors, and making them accountable to the people of London, will clearly be vital over the next few years.