December 10, 2010 8:08 pm

Met chief feels full force of austerity

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Sir Paul Stephenson is in danger of becoming one of the highest-profile victims of the government’s austerity drive.

On the one hand, Britain’s most senior policeman is facing the imminent prospect of deep cuts to his central government funding. On the other, his force is on the front line of the first wave of civil disorder resulting from the biggest cuts to public spending in living memory.

So far, at least, he is not having a good war. Scotland Yard was forced to launch an investigation into its handling of the first violent student protest last month – when the London headquarters of the Conservative party was attacked – admitting that its “softly, softly” approach had proved inadequate.

This week, Sir Paul was prepared for trouble, sending out almost 3,000 officers to deal with tens of thousands of angry students.

But another internal inquiry was launched on Friday – this time to answer the embarrassing question of why a group of protesters was able to attack a car carrying the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall to a London theatre.

For Sir Paul’s detractors, his admission that the prince’s route had been “thoroughly recceed” just minutes before the attack offered little comfort.

Instead, there was alarm at his admission that the police were unprepared for the “unpredictability” of a group of 300 protesters, which broke off from the main disturbances near parliament to make its way to London’s West End – where it encountered the heir to the throne.

One Conservative backbencher, Mark Pritchard, said there should be an external investigation of the incident.

“There are serious questions to be asked at the most senior levels of the Metropolitan Police about why they were allowed to take that route,” he said.

Ministers rejected the suggestion but there was a sense that this was, at least in part, an attempt to put political distance between themselves and Sir Paul.

“The police are best placed to make judgments on these operational issues,” the prime minister’s spokesman said.

There were also questions about whether officers had lost control of the main body of the demonstration and its use of heavy-handed tactics such as mounted police charges and the “kettling” of thousands of protesters in Parliament Square.

Sir Paul described many protesters as “thugs” and said they made up a “significant part” of the crowd. Witnesses agreed that there were groups of young men wearing hoods and masks who were bent on trouble.

Tellingly, the Met commissioner also alluded to the fact that his force will struggle to cope with civil disobedience as its budgets are slashed.

For the Tories, who have repeatedly told their traditional allies in the police to stop complaining about cuts, such comments could become distressingly frequent.

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