Untrustworthy: Alan Clark, answering questions as defence minister
By Geoff Platt
During my police career, I arrested a member of the royal family, a British general in Aldershot barracks and a former government minister. I was not intimidated from doing my duty by the rank of these people, and nobody tried to stop me. I am sure that in these days of management control no current police officer would be allowed to act in this way.
Several politicians, including cabinet ministers, have expressed varying degrees of concern or horror that two retired officers from the Metropolitan Police Service, Bob Quick and Neil Lewis, dared to talk about their experiences as policemen who arrested Damian Green, an MP and until recently effectively the deputy prime minister as first secretary of state.
They have been supported in their apparent horror by an array of people from the Met’s commissioner, Cressida Dick, who I assisted to train when she was a young officer at West End central, to Sir Tom Winsor, chief inspector of constabulary, both appointed by politicians, as well as Steve White, chairman of the Police Federation until the end of last year. Such expressions of unity of opinion are rare.
Quick recalled his experiences in a statement prepared for Sir Brian Leveson’s inquiry into newspaper practices. We do not know how an unpublished draft of his statement, containing references to pornography found on Green’s office computer, reached the Press.
However, I have no qualms in revealing that in 1996 I ordered the arrest of Alan Clark for an offence of obstructing police near Hatchards Bookshop in Piccadilly in the West End of London.
Clark later wrote about the arrest in his published diaries.
An officer had stopped Mr Clark from trying to tear down a police security cordon to enter a controlled area that surrounded a suspect package in the bookshop. My officers and I repeatedly instructed Mr Clark, a former defence minister, to leave the area but he did not want to comply.
Mr Clark then went to his car, a Land Rover Discovery, and drove through the security cordon, endangering the life of the explosives officer dealing with the suspect package. So Mr Clark was arrested.
As soon as he arrived at Bow Street police station, he was informed of his rights, including the right to have someone informed of his arrest and he decided to tell not his wife, Jane, but Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, for whom he was then a regular correspondent.
Damian Green, curiously, following his arrest, chose to call Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World and the Conservative Party’s then director of communications.
The late Mr Clark is remembered as a flamboyant Conservative politician who infamously told the ill-fated Matrix Churchill trial, which sparked the arms-to-Iraq inquiry, that ministers sometimes had to be “economical with the actualité”.
A lot of Press photographers arrived at the front of Bow Street police station, and everybody who entered or left was being photographed.
I was unable to return to the station for a couple of hours until I had finished at the scene. The package, it turned out, was harmless.
When I arrived in the charge room, I went directly to the custody officer responsible for Mr Clark. He said: “Mr Clark wishes to make a complaint.”
I said: “Very well, Mr Clark. Tell me your complaint.”
“It’s you that I want to complain about,” said Mr Clark.
“That is not a problem,” I said. “Tell me your complaint, and I will write it down, and then give it to you to check and sign as being correct.”
He said: “How do I know that you will tell the truth?”
I said: “If I don’t, then you should not sign it”.
Mr Clark: “Then what?”
I said: “Mr Clark, you were a Conservative minister. You presumably have access to the prime minister and the home secretary. My chances of ‘hushing up’ your complaint seem pretty slim from where I am standing.”
Mr Clark: “Very well.”
We sat down together to write down his complaint. He said: “Well, you’ve obviously sold the story of my arrest to the papers.”
I said: “Why do you say that, sir?”
Mr Clark: “You only have to look out of the window to see them all lined up there.”
I said: “Sergeant, has this man been allowed to make a telephone call since he arrived at the police station?”
The custody officer replied: “Yes, sir.”
I asked: “Did he make the call or did you?”
The custody officer said: “He did, sir.”
I asked: “Which telephone did he use?”
Custody officer: “The one in front of you on the desk, sir.”
I asked: “Has anybody else used the telephone since that time?”
Custody officer: “No, sir.”
I lifted the receiver, pressed the speaker button and hit “redial”. The telephone rang twice and was then answered. All I heard was: “Editor, Daily Mail,” then I ended the call.
Mr Clark shrugged his shoulders and smirked.
I said: “Do you still want to make a complaint, Mr Clark?”
He shook his head.
I said: “If you change your mind at any time, I will record your complaint.”
After that, Mr Clark and I got on very well. As I completed the paperwork, he engaged me in discussions on a wide range of topics, including how the government should deal with the IRA.
He made it clear that he thought of policemen as being little more than refuse collectors, unworthy of his time or consideration.
My ability to disprove his allegation against me so quickly had marked me out to him as “above average” for a policeman.
Shortly after, Mr Clark was released and shook my hand and asked whether he could contact me again to discuss other matters of mutual interest. He never did, but he did send me a Christmas card, personally signed by him and his wife, every year until he died.
I was summoned to see my superintendent, who asked to hear my report of the incident and what needed to be done.
I told him that I needed to prepare a report for the attorney general, who was then Sir Nicholas Lyell, to consider instigating a prosecution against Mr Clark. I understood that the attorney general’s authority would be needed for such a prosecution.
I then received an instruction to deliver my report by hand to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
I ended up seeing 13 CPS lawyers, each more senior than the last, before being told to deliver it to the director of public prosecutions (DPP), then Barbara Mills, who approved the charge of obstructing the police.
On my way back to the police station, I received a telephone call on my mobile telephone. I was instructed to take the papers to the attorney general because only he could authorise the prosecution of a former minister.
I was ushered into his office and presented my report. He said: “Who does that DPP think she is? Only I can authorise the prosecution of a former minister.”
He authorised the charging of Mr Clark, saying that I had given him absolutely no choice but to prosecute him.
After I left and made my way back to the police station, another telephone call. It was from the staff officer to the Met commissioner, then Sir Paul Condon. He instructed me to proceed not by charging in person, but my applying for a summons and posting that to Mr Clark. He also ordered me not to attend court on the day of Mr Clark’s hearing, as the commissioner did not want me to be seen gloating.
As if I would!
I did as I had been told.
The day before the court hearing, I walked down Bow Street and arrested my first drunk for 20 years. I took him back to the police station where he was charged.
So it was that at 10.30am the following day I received another call. This time, it was the chief clerk at Bow Street magistrates’ court. He told me that the chief magistrate required my attendance at the court because the drunk had pleaded, “Not guilty.”
I explained that the commissioner had ordered me not to go to Bow Street magistrates’ court because Mr Clark was appearing there, but the chief clerk told me that the chief magistrate would commit me to prison for contempt of court if I did not attend.
That trumped an order from the commissioner, so I went to court.
There, I saw Mr Clark and waved to him. I tried not to gloat.
He had pleaded guilty to obstructing police and was fined £650. This was far more lenient than the usual few months’ imprisonment for such an offence.
A Press photographer arrested for the same offence a short while before at an incident in Limehouse, east London was sentenced to three months in prison for endangering the life of a bomb-disposal expert. Mr Clark’s actions were identical.
Mr Clark told me that he had been summoned by Conservative Party chiefs and instructed to plead guilty, pay his fine in cash and smile for the newspapers.
He paid it in cash and then paid a further fine of £1,000 for another prisoner, who was unable to pay and was in danger of going to prison for non-payment. This featured in many newspapers the next day.
A few years later, Mr Clark set out his version of events in the final volume of his diaries, including a photograph of the summons that he received.
In my opinion, by broadcasting his arrest to the media and subsequently in a best-selling book, Mr Clark waived any right to privacy.
I do sometimes reflect back on Mr Clark’s arrest when some Conservative minister runs into trouble with the police. Their default position does appear to be to deny everything and run around abusing the police, but are eventually caught in a lie.
Perhaps they would do better to reflect on the events that led to their predicament.
So Damian Green seemed to enjoy calling Bob Quick, the former assistant commissioner of the Met, a “discredited former police officer”.
In fact, Bob Quick was very close to achieving the highest rank in the UK’s police service. He had been chief constable of Surrey and was one of about three candidates to be the next deputy commissioner of the Met and, had he been successful, would then have likely been the next commissioner.
Unfortunately, he became embroiled in a dispute between Conservative and Labour politicians, so that when he attended a meeting at 10 Downing Street with a file of papers in his hand rather than in a briefcase or wallet, thereby allowing the Press to photograph them, the politicians that he had offended were able to press for his resignation.
Perhaps his real mistake was giving them that resignation, rather than forcing them to try to sack him. Bob Quick is not discredited at all, careless maybe, but not discredited.
Damian Green, on the other hand, is a discredited politician. He was forced to resign as a cabinet minister after being caught out lying about the police investigation that found pornography on his computer.
Clark intended to make a formal complaint about me that he knew would end my career and which he also knew full well was entirely untrue.
He thought that my career and family were expendable and that his should be protected no matter what.
Once I had shown that I was too clever to allow that to happen, I suddenly became almost a family friend and an equal.
I kept my distance, though, remembering what he had tried to do to me. I did feel some liking for the old rogue. But you just cannot trust a politician.
Geoff Platt was a Met officer for 25 years, serving in the Flying Squad, the anti-terrorist branch and the firearms response team. He is author of ‘The Great Train Robbery and the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad’, ‘The London Underground Serial Killer’ and ‘London Underground Serial Killer: The Life of Kieran Kelly’. This article also appears today on Byline.
How Alan Clark tried to stitch me up after I ordered his arrest for obstructing police