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Boris and Blair's war of words

By Lewis Hannam, Andy Davies

Updated on 26 January 2009

Channel 4 News online has exclusively obtained previously secret letters highlighting the rift between former Met police chief Sir Ian Blair and then London mayoral candidate Boris Johnson.

Remarkable new details have emerged of the rift between former Met chief Sir Ian Blair and Boris Johnson on the day the London Mayor tries to pick the police chief's successor.

Previously secret letters between the pair reveal Blair privately branded Boris Johnson "offensive" and "outrageous" over comments he made about the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.



The war of words erupted between the two after the then London mayoral candidate Johnson publicly described police officers involved in the tragedy at Stockwell tube station as "trigger happy", correspondence obtained under Freedom of Information by Channel 4 News shows.

The feud, which sheds new light on the strained relationship between the pair and the controversy over whether the London mayor eventually forced Blair out, resulted in Johnson refusing to apologise for the remarks, the letters show.

Johnson said in one letter that he had "absolutely no intention" of withdrawing the "trigger happy" remarks and that it was "hard to think of any other description of a catastrophe in which a completely innocent man ends up with seven bullets in his head."

Details of the row emerge as Johnson, who became London mayor in May last year, and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith today interview the final two candidates to succeed Blair, who stood down in October last year. At the time of his resignation Blair said he could not continue in the role "without the mayor's backing".

After Blair quit, Johnson faced criticism, including tacit inferences from Jacqui Smith that he had forced Blair out. It sparked much debate over the potential politicisation of police appointments.

The pair's row over the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes can be traced back to 22 November 2007 when Johnson, then the Conservative mayoral candidate, told the BBC's World at One programme: "I think the real reason Jean Charles de Menezes got killed in the Stockwell Tube was not just because the police were too trigger happy, although I think you could argue that they were..."


"It is hard to think of any other description of a catastrophe in which a completely innocent man ends up with seven bullets in his head."
Boris Johnson

According to the letters obtained by Channel 4 News from the Metropolitan Police Service, Blair then wrote to Johnson the next day to complain.

The letter (abridged) reads: "I am writing to you to say that I consider your comments that it could be argued that MPS officers are 'trigger happy' to be outrageous.

"I would suggest in the strongest possible terms that you withdraw your remarks.

"In addition, I am sure you will also note the inherent flaw in your broader argument that officers' actions in this case, before Jean Charles de Menezes entered Stockwell underground station, were constrained by Health and Safety considerations.

"That flaw is that, prior to the recent prosecution, no one had ever dreamt of the application of this legislation to fast moving police operations, where life is at risk.

"I should add that it remains my view that such a vehicle for prosecution should never have been used and should never be used again."

De Menezes was shot by Met police after they misidentified him as a suicide bomber about to explode a device on the London Underground on 22 July 2005.

Johnson wrote to Blair on 27 November 2007 saying he would not retract the "trigger happy" comments.

The letter (abridged) reads: "You seem to want me to withdraw the use of the word 'trigger happy' in respect of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes.

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"I have absolutely no intention of doing so. It is hard to think of any other description of a catastrophe in which a completely innocent man ends up with seven bullets in his head.

"I have made repeatedly clear that I believe the officers involved to have been personally extremely brave.

"But I remain deeply dismayed that neither you nor the Mayor nor anyone else seems willing to address the fundamental question in the minds of the London public.

"If this man was thought to be a potential suicide bomber, why the hell was he allowed on two buses, and then down the Tube?

"Why was he allowed to put the public at progressively greater risk?"

Blair wrote again on 6 December 2007 to reiterate his anger over the comments, and Johnson's unwillingness to retract them. He said numerous officers had complained to him about the remarks.


"I would suggest that those without knowledge of what they will say should think long and hard before making comment."
Sir Ian Blair

The letter (abridged) reads: "I am very, very surprised that you continue to stand by your comments that the officers involved were 'trigger happy'.

"To describe them in this way is offensive to the men and women who routinely have to face some of the most dangerous situations within policing, to protect the Londoners they serve and their unarmed colleagues.

"Many of these armed officers have complained about your comments.

"Armed officers are highly skilled and accountable. These courageous men and women volunteer: they accept that they will have to stand between armed criminals and the public in life and death situations, which demand split second decision-making.

"Mr de Menezes was shot by police at Stockwell Underground Station after being mistakenly identified as a suicide bomber. His death was an absolute tragedy and the MPS has never sought to avoid accountability for it.

"However, the prosecution in the Health and Safety trial did not call the officers concerned in the shooting to give their account and that will not be heard until the Inquest next year.

"Until that time, I would suggest that those without knowledge of what they will say should think long and hard before making comment.

"Mr de Menezes died because the Met was facing an entirely unforeseen threat - that of suicide bombers on the run."

These documents were obtained via a FoI request to the Metropolitan Police Service.

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