Who would want to be Met commissioner?

Metropolitan Police chiefs used to last decades—now they are lucky to manage five years

February 16, 2022
Cressida Dick  has become the third among the last four Met commissioners to be ousted after serving less than five years. Image: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
Cressida Dick has become the third among the last four Met commissioners to be ousted after serving less than five years. Image: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Once upon a time, metropolitan police commissioners lasted decades. I know because during a lockdown visit to Kensal Green Cemetery in north London—no, it wasn’t for a morbidity-themed No 10 party—my eye was caught by a Victorian memorial which looked like an imitation of Cleopatra’s Needle. It was the tomb of “Sir Richard Mayne, second commissioner of the metropolitan police.” Mayne was commissioner for an astonishing 39 years, serving under 14 home secretaries. And he took over from Charles Rowan, the Met’s founding commissioner appointed by Robert Peel, who served for two decades.

Nowadays, commissioners are lucky to avoid being sacked in less than half a decade. Until last week it looked as if Cressida Dick might escape that ignominy. But no, she has become the third among the last four commissioners to be ousted after serving less than five years. As mayor of London, Boris Johnson in effect dismissed two commissioners—Ian Blair and his successor Paul Stephenson—and now Sadiq Khan has followed suit by evicting Dick. The intervening commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, left after less than five and a half years; John Stevens, Blair’s predecessor, notched up precisely five years. Not since Joseph Simpson in the 1960s has a police commissioner lasted a decade.

So what’s wrong? Is the job impossible? Are the incumbents useless? Or are their bosses—and they have multiple effective bosses, not just the mayor but also the home secretary and the prime minister—too prone to sack them to save their own skins? A bit of all three, I think.

The Met commissioner is responsible not only for policing one of the largest cities in the world; they also have responsibility for a host of national policing activities including counter terrorism, which makes them virtually the national police chief. The strain of a job constantly in the public eye is immense, and the potential to fall out with either the mayor or home secretary, particularly when they are from different parties, is pretty high.

However, it’s not the case that hugely demanding top jobs in London with multiple bosses invariably end in tears. Peter Hendy served for nearly a decade as transport commissioner to both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson—a job about as demanding and pressured as Met commissioner—and he not only left of his own accord but went on to an equally significant national role as chair of Network Rail, where he is now in his seventh year. His ultimate boss there too is Johnson. Both Hendy’s predecessor and successor at TfL—Bob Kiley and Mike Brown—lasted less than five years.

I know Hendy well. He is no patsy, but a thoroughly professional public transport manager who combines wide boy charm and a shrewd sense for when to humour his political bosses—of whom I was one as transport secretary—without compromising either his integrity or his ability to manage effectively. Boris got his trademark buses and bikes, even a cable car to nowhere, but the £100bn bridge to Northern Ireland and other wild Johnsonian follies were recently quietly buried by Hendy, who also persuaded the prime minister not to make the crass error—urged by Dominic Cummings—of cancelling HS2 from London to Birmingham and Manchester two years ago, when more than £10bn had already been spent and the government was supposedly championing “levelling up.”

Hendy is also a bloody good manager. In his entire 17 years at Transport for London and Network Rail there has been no catastrophic mismanaged accident or prolonged service breakdown. The big TfL disasters of the last decade—the Croydon tram crash and the three-year delay to the opening of Crossrail, whose budget rocketed out of control—happened after he left, which may be luck but more likely, in my view, either wouldn’t have happened or would have been far better managed had he stayed. He inspires confidence and delivers.

No recent Met commissioner has been of Hendy’s calibre, as manager, strategist or assuager of angry and ambitious politicians. Although I quite liked her, and am surprised that she was sacked only a few months after having her contract renewed for another two years, I never had a clue what Cressida Dick was trying to do to the Met. She wasn’t obviously incompetent, but she inspired less and less confidence in the face of mounting crises, including the Sarah Everard murder and Charing Cross scandal over utterly unacceptable messages between officers. It was the same with all her recent predecessors, who were either obviously weak or only just satisfactory and looked increasingly so over time.

It’s the Leader, Stupid—good leaders survive and flourish, poor leaders fail or bail out. It’s simple, really.