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To choose a Commissioner: The dilemma facing the Home Office, Met and Mayor

Scandals in recent months have led to Cressida Dick’s departure as head of London’s police. Who will lead the Met from here? Our Chief Executive Nick Bowes breaks down the process of picking her successor.

The Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis might sound like something out of a Frit Lang film or Superman comic. But it isn’t – it is instead the full title of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, the most important job in UK policing. While the role heads up London’s policing, it also includes some national policing responsibilities, including counterterrorism and protection of the Royal Family and other key figures.  

The job is enormous. Keeping safe a city of 9 million Londoners is a massive daily challenge. London is full of high-profile targets that come with a capital city, it’s the focus of protest and home to some deep societal challenges. With so much focus on the role, commissioners have never been far from the headlines, and sadly not always for the right reasons. Dame Cressida Dick’s dramatic departure last week brings the total of those resigning to three out the last four commissioners (the other two being Sir Ian Blair and Sir Paul Stephenson). The fourth, Sir Bernard Hogan Howe, retired before the end of his contract. 

And so now the search for a successor to Dame Cressida is starting in earnest. Reports suggest a meeting this week between the two main people involved in taking the decision – the Home Secretary and the Mayor. Already, several press articles have listed the main runners and riders for the job – most of whom have a connection one way or another with the Met, either working in the organisation now, or at some point in the past. This piece won’t go over the that ground but is intended instead to focus on the way a new commissioner is appointed and what might happen in the coming weeks.   

The process we have today for appointing a new Commissioner is the product of two decades of tug of war between the Home Office and City Hall. It replicates many similar tales of how devolution and the desire to spin responsibilities away from central government come into conflict with the resistance of Whitehall to release their grip on power.  

From 2000, with the arrival of the Greater London Authority (GLA), accountability for the city’s policing became the dual responsibility of the Mayor and Home Secretary. This was a marked change with the GLA’s predecessor, the Greater London Council, which had no statutory role over policing in the city. The story of how the changes on the run up to 2000 came about have been much documented elsewhere (I’d recommend both Nick Raynsford’s Substance Not Spin and Tony Travers seminal book The Politics of London for their coverage of this period and some of the reasons behind the way the Mayoralty was created as it is today).  

Originally, the thinking was the Mayor would take over sole accountability for the Met, with the power to appoint (and dismiss) the Commissioner. But this was watered down after a rear-guard battle by the Home Office during the drafting of the Greater London Authority Act (1999). In the end, the rather messy compromise was dual accountability – the police were to have two bosses, the Mayor and the Home Secretary. A key argument in justifying the continued involvement of the Home Office was the Met’s retention of responsibility for national policing functions.   

While accountability is shared, the Home Secretary did not relinquish the power to appoint the Commissioner. Before I continue, and to avoid being called out for getting the process wrong, it is true that technically the Queen appoints the Commissioner but does so based on advice taken from the Home Secretary. However, it is hard to see a set of circumstances where the Queen refuses to act on the advice she receives, hence for the sake of brevity I refer to it as a Home Secretary appointment.  

Further revisions to the 1999 legislation occurred with the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act (2011). This abolished police authorities (including the Metropolitan Police Authority, technically the body to which the police in London were accountable. The Mayor appointed 12 of the 23 members, who had to be on the London Assembly and in accordance with political balance on the assembly), created Police and Crime Commissioners and designated the Mayor of London the city’s de facto crime commissioner (albeit he or she can delegate to a deputy mayor, as both incumbents under this legislation have done) thus introducing direct accountability. The process of appointing a new commissioner was also slightly revised in s42 of the legislation – while the Home Secretary retained the power, the act stipulates “the Secretary of State must have regard to any recommendations made by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime”. 

I’d venture that a room full of lay people would all have different interpretations of what ‘must have regard to’ means in practice. Lawyers are better placed than I am to comment on the specific legal meaning, but my interpretation of ‘must have regard to’ is that the Home Secretary has to seek the views of the Mayor, but isn’t necessarily bound by them. So, in practice, the Home Secretary is free to ignore what the Mayor thinks and appoint a candidate of his or her choosing. However, in such a situation, the Home Secretary would be expected to justify any deviation from the Mayor’s opinion. Nevertheless, the legislation leaves a fair amount of wriggle room – for instance, I don’t think it is clear whether by seeking the views of the Mayor, this means after a preferred candidate has been identified by the Home Secretary, or whether this means the Mayor is more closely involved at earlier stages, such as interviewing and shortlisting.   

To date, the legislation for appointing a new commissioner hasn’t proven to be too controversial (in contrast to the dismissal of a commissioner, but that’s a different story!). All those involved have approached the task in a statesmanlike manner, seeing the importance of collaboration and consensus even when the Mayor and Government are of different political persuasions, and going out of their way to avoid disagreement and conflict.  

Since the Mayoralty was created, there have been four changes of Commissioner – the replacement for Cressida Dick will be the fifth.  To date, Home Secretaries have involved Mayors in the process in order to reach agreement on a preferred candidate. And you can understand why – it is hardly in anyone’s interest to have disagreement, and it would be unlikely any difference of opinion would remain behind closed doors. An incoming Commissioner won’t be keen on taking on the role knowing the Mayor as one of their two bosses didn’t want them to get the job. A Home Secretary won’t want to appoint a commissioner that potentially sees protracted tension with the Mayor, and between the Mayor and the new Commissioner. And the Mayor won’t want a Commissioner imposed on them they don’t support, not least because it risks them looking politically weak should it become public.   

When Cressida Dick was appointed back in 2017, I was working in the Mayor’s Office at City Hall. The then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, invited the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, to be part of the interview process. As a blueprint for how to embrace the spirit of the legislation, this is as good as it gets, and ought to be replicated for finding Cressida Dick’s replacement. 

But as is sometimes the case, processes and conventions rely to a large degree on the behaviour of the individuals involved. Politics has changed considerably since 2017, and it’s no secret that City Hall and the current Government have sour relations in several areas, most notably over the funding of Transport for London. Should there be disagreements, I doubt they’d stay private for long, eating away at the confidence City Hall and the Home Secretary have in each other.  

In the immediate aftermath of the Commissioner’s resignation, there’ve been some early skirmishes between the Home Office and City Hall played out in the media. A lot of this is just noise and can be dismissed as the rough and tumble of politics. The Mayor has made clear he won’t support a candidate that hasn’t got a plan for restoring confidence in the Met. Other briefings in the media suggested the Home Secretary was exploring all options, including seeking a way to bypass the Mayor’s involvement even if that meant legislative changes. This would be a pretty explosive option and runs counter to the government’s agenda of devolution – regardless of it being unnecessary as the law is clear it is the Home Secretary’s decision.  

I doubt this latter option will be pursued, not least because the optics of emergency legislation to seize control of appointing the new Met Commissioner at a time when the Prime Minister is under investigation are terrible and are likely to be roundly criticised. My gut feeling is that as the dust settles on the commissioner’s resignation, cool heads will prevail, and the Home Secretary and Mayor will work together constructively to find a candidate they both support. Besides, briefings on disagreements over process often mask the fact there is broad agreement on the substance! 

I suspect there’ll be the usual talk of finding an outside candidate, potentially from abroad. Whether the desire to bring someone in from overseas runs into the sand like previous attempts is yet to be seen. Similarly, some have stressed that the new Commissioner needs to be an outsider, untarnished and not institutionalised by the Met. But finding a candidate with the experience to do such a big job who isn’t currently within the Met, or has never worked in the Met, will be tricky. The Met is so large that there are few in the senior ranks across the country who have never worked in the force. Besides, because of the Met’s complexity, the new commissioner will also need to demonstrate a knowledge of how it works. 

Finding a new Commissioner is clearly the priority, but this alone won’t solve the deep institutional challenges the Met Police are facing. Wider reforms will be needed, and perhaps radical options like splitting the national functions from the Met, or maybe even starting over afresh with a new Police Service for London. If these were to happen, it ought to open the way for the Mayor to become solely accountable for the city’s police, with the power to hire and fire the commissioner. Such an outcome would certainly make the whole process clearer and simpler and be a vote of confidence in devolution and local accountability.  

Nick Bowes is Chief Executive of Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here.