Somewhere, in a secure shed at an undisclosed location, sit three used and ageing water cannon. These Ziegler Wasserwerfer 9000s – a model known as ‘Goliath’ by their previous owners, the German Federal Police – cost London taxpayers £218,000 when purchased second hand last year. Apparently they had to be disguised as rubbish trucks when they were transported to the UK. A ‘crack team’ of 20 Metropolitan Police officers have been training to deploy with them on London’s streets in the event of riots. But all this training and expense has been in vain it seems – the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has ruled that the cannon will not be deployed.
The ruling is a blow to the Mayor, who has invested a significant amount of political (and actual) capital in pushing for the ability to deploy these machines in the wake of the 2011 riots. The Mayor had the support of his Deputy Mayor for Policing, and, more importantly, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan Howe – as well as polling showing that 68% of Londoners backed the deployment of the cannon. Boris had even offered to be blasted by one of the cannon himself to prove their safety and effectiveness.
The Home Secretary gave a number of reasons for her decision, including fears over safety, worries about the ability of such old machines to be deployed swiftly and effectively in response to a rapidly unfolding public order breakdown, and concerns that such machines constituted the ‘weaponising’ of policing which would undermine the UK’s cherished model of policing by consent. Her decision is reportedly supported by the chief constables of 5 of the UK’s 6 largest police forces and was endorsed by Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper.
Whilst the ruling is an embarrassment to Boris and could add to the growing list of expensive white elephants his mayoralty has gifted London, the Wasserwerfers are a calculated political risk by the Mayor that may yet yield significant rewards. Not only has he burnished his law and order credentials with the public and, more importantly, right-wing Tories, but May’s decision leaves the Home Secretary dangerously exposed if there is another violent outbreak of public disorder in the capital in the next couple of years.
Boris has vowed to keep the Wasserwerfers in the event that they may be a needed and a future Home Secretary may take a different stance. This raises the prospect that Theresa May could be forced into a humiliating climb-down at a future date, or be compelled to answer some very awkward questions as to why she denied the police the tools they needed to keep the peace. (And, when talking about ‘a future Home Secretary’, Boris could well be thinking of himself, or the person he appoints in the event of becoming PM).
The cannon will also be a tricky inbox issue for the next Mayor when they take office in ten months’ time. Does the next Mayor sell the cannon, gambling that they may never be needed, or keep them, tacitly endorsing Boris’ stance? Boris may well take a reputational hit today, but he may have set a bear trap for both a major leadership rival and his successor. I’m sure he’d conclude that was well worth £218,000 of other people’s money.