Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for crime was left squirming as London Assembly members rounded on her at a frosty committee meeting last week.
Sophie Linden was confronted by claims that City Hall had “openly criticised” Met Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe as part of a campaign to strong-arm him into retirement.
Hogan-Howe announced last month that he is to step down in February next year.
During a monthly question-and-answer session at the London Assembly police and crime committee, Linden, sitting alongside Scotland Yard’s deputy chief Craig Mackey, was asked to outline the process for appointing Hogan-Howe’s replacement.
She said: “I’d like to put on record our thanks to the Commissioner for the great job he has done in leading a very complex institution in the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), and he has had some great successes around the Olympics and also the reduction in crime over the years.”
Pushed on the timeline for the new appointment of Hogan-Howe’s replacement, she added: “We hope to have someone in place by the end of February. However, I’m very confident that if there is a gap in the position of commissioner, Craig Mackey will be able to take the MPS forward. He is extremely competent.”
But Conservative London Assembly member firebrand Keith Prince joked: “That is curtains for you then, Craig.”
Prince was referring to the vote of confidence Hogan-Howe received from City Hall a week before he announced his retirement.
He asked Linden: “Is it true that he [Hogan-Howe] just woke up one morning, seven days later, and decided he didn’t want the job anymore? Or was there an issue between him, yourself and the Mayor that made him consider his position and resign?”
Linden insisted Hogan-Howe’s decision was “his alone”.
“We still have confidence in him leading the MPS until February and we have a very good working relationship,” she added.
But Prince said her answer “did not stack up”.
He said: “It was only a year ago that the Commissioner asked [former mayor] Boris Johnson to extend his contract for another five years.”
Hogan-Howe eventually agreed to a one-year deal after Johnson said it was up to his successor to offer a long-term contract.
Prince added: “Then the new Mayor decides to put the Commissioner on probation. We know he cannot do that, but he said it on LBC radio. And now all we ever see is the Mayor criticising the Commissioner.”
Linden said she “did not recognise” Prince’s description of events and again insisted the pair “have a very good relationship”.
But Prince had not finished. He told her: “We saw the fiasco over Commander De Brunner’s resignation, when the Mayor was highly critical of the Commissioner.”
Maxine De Brunner was allowed to resign despite being under investigation for misuse of police funds.
“We saw the pure hypocrisy of the Mayor when it came to Operation Hercules, when he said how inappropriately it was advertised – yet he was standing in the flipping photograph himself,” Prince added.
Sadiq Khan was pictured with Hogan-Howe when they jointly announced Operation Hercules, which is part of a fresh drive to put more armed officers in visible roles across the capital.
“And then it came to the disgrace of spit hoods,” Prince continued.
Sadiq Khan blocked the Met’s introduction of the hoods, which are placed over suspects’ heads to prevent them spitting at officers, and has asked police bosses to explain the policy.
Prince claimed the decision “has put hard-working officers in the MPS at risk of all sorts of diseases because all [the mayor’s] little chums think they are degrading for people who are about to assault a police officer”.
The attack prompted calls from the committee’s chairman, Labour’s Unmesh Desai, to get back to the original question, but veteran Conservative politician Tony Arbour said: “The thing that really foxes us is the dissonance between what was said at the previous meeting of this committee about the longevity of the Commissioner’s reign and the fact that he has now handed in his papers.”
He asked Linden: “Was the Commissioner fitted up for this?”
Linden said it was normal for there to be “disagreements and discord” in high-level politics, but said: “I can reiterate that the working relationship between the Mayor, the Commissioner and myself is very good.”
She appeared to put the mayor’s criticisms of Hogan-Howe down to “honest answers to honest questions”, and said future disagreements would be conducted in private “as they were before”.
The remark caused consternation, with Gareth Bacon, the leader of the London Assembly Conservatives, pressing Linden further. He said: “A lot of the instances mentioned were done through press releases, not answers to questions. That is proactively going out to the press with a line that directly contradicts the public position taken by the Commissioner.
“It is indisputable that the Mayor has gone out of his way to publicly contradict the Commissioner on at least three occasions which relate directly to operational policing.”
Linden denied there had been a “deliberate strategy” to publicly undermine Hogan-Howe, and countered the accusations by saying: “I can see why all of you want to push that position because it makes good theatre and it makes some good stories, but it is not true.”
The Mayor’s office is yet to respond to a request for comment.