The days of “honourable” resignations in public life are long gone. On Monday 5 April 1982 Peter Carrington resigned as Foreign Secretary because Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands the Friday before. The subsequent (successful) battle to retake the Islands deserves an article of its own, so I will only remark here that no one for a moment believed that Carrington was personally responsible for any failure of intelligence, analysis or diplomacy in predicting or preventing the Argentinian invasion. But he took the view that there was the appearance of a substantial failure and it had happened on his watch, so he had to resign.
Today, a politician can be personally and solely responsible for a major policy failure, he can even be caught red-handed lying to ameliorate it, but no one thinks it particularly odd when he resists calls to resign. When the failings are clearly attributable to civil servants who work for him, the question of his resignation does not even arise.
This is certainly a major change in our (unwritten) constitution, which previously held ministers accountable for actions and decisions which turned out badly, even when they were attributable to his department and the minister was not personally involved.
Whilst the responsibility of ministers has decreased over the last few decades, there has been no corresponding increase in the accountability of senior civil servants or other public servants. Ian Blair was widely criticised for the shooting of Jean Paul de Menezes on 22 July 2005 but he made clear early on that he had no intention of resigning.
The “Stockwell 1” report into the shooting has not yet been published, because a Health & Safety prosecution of the Met is due to begin on 1 October. However, following a complaint by Menezes’ family, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) also carried out an investigation into whether Ian Blair made misleading public statements on the shooting. The resulting Stockwell 2 report was published on 2 August 2007.
The purpose of the report (paras 13.1/2) was to assess whether there was sufficient evidence to sustain a prosecution for the common law offence of misconduct in public office, or for disciplinary proceedings under the Police (Conduct) Regulations 2004. It concluded that there was not. That is hardly surprising. The common law offence is rarely prosecuted, but is occasionally used against relatively junior policemen who take inadequate steps to prevent deaths in custody and suchlike. A key element of the offence is whether the accused’s motive is “dishonest, oppressive, or corrupt” (R v Borron 1820).
The Court of Appeal had provided guidance on the offence at the request of the Attorney General just over a year before Menezes was shot. It had concluded (para 56) “… there must be a serious departure from proper standards before the criminal offence is committed; and a departure not merely negligent but amounting to an affront to the standing of the public office held. The threshold is a high one requiring conduct so far below acceptable standards as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder …”. Against this background it was never remotely plausible that Stockwell 2 would lead to proceedings against Ian Blair.
The question remains, of course, whether there was anything in the report which might result in pressure on Blair to resign. Oddly enough, the issue that gave him most difficulty was the question of when he realized that the wrong man had been shot.
In an earlier article, I commented that it should have taken well under an hour to get positive confirmation that an innocent man had been killed. In the event, it took about nine hours for the police to get hold of clear-cut evidence that the victim was an innocent Brazilian, and it was not until the following morning that it was clearly established that he was not the suspicious character seen vaulting the barrier at the entrance to the station (who turned out to be one of the police shooters). Nonetheless gossip was clearly spreading around the Met like wildfire in the course of the afternoon that an innocent man had been shot.
Ian Blair claimed that the first he knew about the wrong man being shot was the following morning. None of the press releases on the day of the shooting (the last at 11:37pm) suggested that the man was innocent. Moreover, Blair had given two later press interviews, the first with the News of the World in August, published on 21 August 2005, and the second with the Guardian in November published 30 January 2006. In the first he said “the key component was that at time – and for the next 24 hours – I and everyone who advised me believed the person who was shot was a suicide bomber”. In the later interview he said “I’m quite clear that by 7:30 at night [the time he went home that day] we still had nothing that was identifying him … otherwise we wouldn’t have been putting out the messages that we were putting out.”
This is certainly hard to believe. But the only clear-cut evidence that it was wrong came from Brian Paddick who had been in Blair’s outer office at 3:30pm on the day of the shooting. He claims that one of Blair’s assistants (chief superintendent Moir Stewart) told him “we’ve shot a Brazilian tourist”. Another assistant (Caroline Murdoch) mentioned a driving licence found on the body supporting Brazilian identity. The evidence of the two assistants on this meeting was confused. Paddick later saw the News of the World interview and thought it was wrong. He had a meeting with Blair the following day. His and Blair’s recollections of the meeting differ. The subtext, not much discussed in the report, was that Paddick might be treated as an unreliable witness because of his colourful career in the Met (gay, soft on cannabis, apparently with strong supporters and detractors within the Met).
I find it completely unbelievable that Blair did not know early on Friday afternoon that the wrong man had been shot. On the other hand, whilst it may be intriguing or bizarre that he should claim otherwise, it is hard to get excited about it. More significant was that the Met put out information in the early days that suggested that the mistake was much less serious than it was. The public was given the impression that firearms officers had been chasing a suspicious character with a bulky jacket (possibly concealing explosives). He had refused to stop, leaped over the barrier into the station and got on the train before they could stop him. All that was totally false.
I remember clearly watching a BBC TV program, Questions of Security, six days after the shooting (and not part of the complaint investigated by the IPCC). At 13min 0sec, Blair gives an emotional account of the “cold courage” of his firearms officers running towards someone they thought was a suicide bomber about to detonate a bomb, commenting that, unlike everyone else in the panel and studio audience, he had talked to the officers and knew what they had faced. Who knows what the officers had told him, but we were now six days after the shooting. It seems fairly clear that by then Blair had ample information to show that the shooting was not quite this heroic.
But again it is hard to see anything that looks remotely like a motive sufficient to support a criminal charge, or even disciplinary proceedings.
Of course, the question still remains: why was he spinning the Met’s actions? I suspect it was fairly cold-blooded. He wanted to win the propaganda war. He knew he had a potential public relations disaster on his hands if accurate facts about the shooting came out immediately. So he presented it as much more forgivable and innocent than it was. A terrible tragedy in extraordinarily difficulty circumstances.
He knew that eventually an IPCC report would come out with a much less favourable version. But the IPCC enquiry was aimed at seeing if anyone had a criminal case to answer. He knew that was unlikely. The Crown Prosecution Service would refuse to bring any case against a serving police officer after the London bombings unless it was overwhelming and clear-cut, which was unlikely. There was plenty of confusion around at the time to provide mitigation. Moreover it would be years before any IPCC report was published. By then he could claim to have introduced all kinds of new procedures to learn the lessons of the tragedy.