As the search for Cressida Dick's successor at the Metropolitan Police continues, Rick Muir discusses why the job is viewed as a poisoned chalice, and why Dick's successor will have a sizeable task on their hands. 

It is often said that being the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is an impossible job. Indeed, it is striking that over the last 20 years few commissioners have left Scotland Yard at a time of their own choosing. Most have contested legacies; some have been mired in controversy.

Is it then an 'impossible job'? That would be to overstate the case. It is a fiendishly difficult job and one that, rather like being prime minister, requires a range of abilities that it is rare to find embodied in a single person.

So, what capabilities will the next commissioner require? First, they will need to be an outstanding communicator, both internally and externally. Some commissioners enjoy a strong bond with their officers and staff. Cressida Dick unquestionably has the support of the rank and file, a result of her transparent personal integrity, an accessible leadership style and a clear understanding among her officers that she 'has their backs'.

What makes the role especially challenging is that, as well as sustaining morale within the Met, the commissioner must simultaneously communicate with a wider public which at the present time is losing confidence in their police force. Unlike the commissioners of the past they must do this in a 24/7 media environment, in which almost every decision they make is seen through contrasting political lenses and contested in the frenetic back and forth of social media.

Write for us.

We're always on the lookout for talented writers and welcome submissions. Please send your opinion piece or pitch to:

One thing that is vital in this context is that a police leader needs to be constantly explaining why they do what they do. It is not enough to put out the typical police press release that says as little as possible. Why has a particular decision been made? Upon what criteria? What are the underlying values that have shaped the choices made? The police service as a whole, and the Met in particular, tends to be poor at explanation.

Second, the incoming commissioner will need a bold plan for reform and will need to oversee its implementation with a singular focus. The current crisis of confidence is in some ways comparable to 1972 when the 'lone ranger from Leicester' Sir Robert Mark, marched into the Yard determined to clean up a CID and a Flying Squad mired in corruption. He at times spoke a little too boldly, essentially labelling the whole of CID as corrupt. He later said he was treated like a 'leper' internally, but he projected a reforming zeal that attracted the respect of wider society.

2022 is not 1972, however. For one thing the new commissioner will need to sustain the morale of a workforce battered by a decade of austerity and feeling highly defensive in the context of recent criticism. For another thing the current police regulations give chief officers much less control over the misconduct process than in Mark's day.

In addition, it is hard to manage and reform a sprawling organisation of 45,000 officers and staff, broken down into numerous territorial commands and specialist units. They will need to focus on those units where there are the worst problems and instigate a clear out. They will also need to recognise that while they posses the formal power, the social power in the organisation rests with the frontline supervisors, the sergeants and inspectors. Culture change will mean putting in place a more structured leadership programme for frontline leaders, who currently get too little support. They must be the people who set high expectations, call out bad behaviour and make it clear that there will be zero tolerance of racism, misogyny and other forms of prejudice.

Finally, the new commissioner will need to navigate a complex political landscape. The dual accountability of the commissioner to the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London unquestionably makes it a demanding role, especially when these posts are held by politicians from different parties. This puts a premium on political awareness, in particular an ability to win support for a reform programme in ways that appeal to politicians from very different ideological perspectives. That is not impossible. A lot as ever will depend on the personalities involved.

Most commissioners tend to excel in some of these areas, few if any excel in all of them. That doesn't mean it is an impossible job, but it is one that requires a range of qualities, steadiness under fire and more than a bit of luck.

5 votes

Sign-up for free to stay up to date with the latest political news, analysis and insight from the Comment Central team.

By entering your email address you are agreeing to Comment Central’s privacy policy