Quick's marching orders: too harsh, or just right?

by Stephen Tall on April 9, 2009

Bob Quick, “Britain’s most senior anti-terrorism officer” as he’s known to every paper, has resigned after he was photographed yesterday outside Number 10 holding an outline briefing on an on-going counter-terrorism operation inadvertently exposing the names of several senior officers, locations and details about the nature of the overseas threat.

It prompts two questions in my mind.

First, are we holding public figures in senior office to the right standard?

No-one is suggesting Bob Quick deliberately leaked the briefing. Clearly he’d just been reading it in the car in preparation for a meeting, and didn’t think to put it back in his folder to conceal its contents from the media’s telescopic lenses. If all of us got fired for elementary blunders like that, few of us would be in a job. Then again, not many of us are employed as Assistant Commissioner (Specialist Operations) of London’s Metropolitan Police Service responsible for counter terrorism within the United Kingdom. Nor is this Mr Quick’s first offence: just last December, he hot-headedly accused the Tories of corruption, alleging they were undermining his leak investigation following the Met’s bizarre arrest of Damian Green.

Of course, politicians hold themselves to different standards: famously, not a single Labour politician resigned over the failure to find WMD in Iraq, their pretext for a war which was the most catastrophic British foreign policy blunder since Suez. And it’s not just politicians: Bob Quick’s old boss as Metropolitan Commissionaire Sir Ian Blair declined to take responsibility for the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, until he was eventually forced out of his job by London mayor Boris Johnson.

My second question is this: to what extent should politicians involve themselves in these hiring and firing decisions?

Michael Howard notoriously came unstuck when questioned by Jeremy Paxman about whether he had threatened as Tory home secretary to over-rule prisons director-general Derek Lewis when he suspended a prison governor. Since then politicians have been understandably reticent about appearing to interfere in operational management decisions over which they have no direct control (and, it could be argued, competence).

This seems to be at least part of the explanation for Tory shadow home secretary Chris Grayling’s hand-wringing performance on last night’s BBC Newsnight, refusing to answer the question of whether he thought Mr Quick should be fired, and instead falling back on those stand-by politician weasel-words, “there are serious questions to be answered”. (Which might also have something of course to do with Mr Quick’s role in the Damian Green affair).

I’ll leave the last word to Lib Dem shadow home secretary Chris Huhne who responded briefly to Mr Quick’s resignation with these telling words:

This was the right decision from Bob Quick. He resigned from a position of great responsibility in an honourable way. This should be a lesson to his political masters when they commit similar misjudgements and mistakes.”