First impressions matter. Nowhere is that more important than in the growth industry of event security. I like my security guards to look like Howard Webb, tall and strong, with a pleasing manner but really firm authority. I do not feel safe when I am patted down by young men half my size with bad skin, hats too big for them, sleeves too long, and no idea where I go next.
Webb is a world class football referee, with whom I had a good chat at Labour’s sports dinner last week, and there is only one of him, whereas there are many thousands of security guards required for the Olympics.
British soldiers tend to have that Webb quality. Strong, confident, not to be messed with, but also with a good sense of humour, which they will need now they have been called in to sort out the security shambles of the Olympic Games, a week after thousands of them were told by the so-called party of defence that they were surplus to requirements.
One or two people got a bit agitato yesterday when I said that G4S chief executive Nick Buckles could do with a haircut. It was a serious point – related to the one above. Impressions matter. They matter a lot in leadership. And they matter in times of crisis.
When the leader of the organisation presiding over the potential crisis comes on the telly, the viewer needs to know he has authority and he has competence. A lot of that will be down to what he says – and he didn’t do too well on that front either. But someone once said ‘what you see is 90 per cent of what you hear,’ and what people saw was an untidy haircut, a bad tie, an odd tan, and they all combined with the stuff coming out of his mouth to ensure the message was a bad one, and confidence did not grow as a result of his media appearances.
On twitter, some protested that this was ‘classic New Labour style over substance.’ But if you take insufficient care of the style, nobody hears the substance. And if you care little about your appearance, many people assume you care little about what you do.
If he had been promoting a rock concert, he might have been ok. But we are talking about the security of the most important sporting event in our lifetime. His firm has cocked it up big-style. How he looks matters to the sense people have of things being sorted out. If he is going to carry on being the public face of G4S, he needs to smarten up.
It was typical of the team approach of Labour’s Tessa Jowell that she went out on the telly to try to assure people things would be sorted. She is indeed a team player and determined to do what she can to ensure the Games go well.
But the G4S fiasco is one that must be laid at the Government’s door. Any investigation into this must establish what systems were in place to track the G4S planning step by step, day by day. You can have all the civil servants and outside contractors you want. But that kind of operation, in my experience, gets results only if there is constant ministerial pressure, and pressure from the top and the centre, to ensure the job is being done properly.
From David Cameron down, you get the sense in this government of way too much flying by the seat of their white tie pants. George Osborne’s Budget was a seat-flying last minute botch job. Cameron seems to arrive at summits having had his first read of the brief onthe plane. Ministers appear ill at ease defending policy because they fear even as they speak, the policy is being changed somewhere else in the system.
And I didn’t see Jeremy Hunt on Andrew Marr’s show, but I see from twitter he said it was to be expected that a security job as big as this went wrong from time to time. Nonsense. When the troops are called in, days after being decimated by ‘austerity’, you know you have made a total arse of it. I cannot for the life of me imagine how loudly the Tory Opposition under Cameron would have shouted had this been on Labour’s watch – troops losing post-Afghanistan leave because the government couldn’t organise the security for an event we have known is coming since July 6 2005.
Let everyone also remember this when the Government brings forward the next stages of the contracting out of whole swathes of the public service realm, and repeats the ‘public bad, private good’ mantra that drives so much of their politics.
This is a failure of public and private. The lack of grip of the publicly elected ministers; and their blind trust in private firms often interested in making as much as they can from doing as little as they have to.
As to whether it will be sorted, I had a message yesterday from a former police officer who was working for G4S, has now resigned, and says the shambles is even worse than is being stated publicly. Nick Buckles is not the man to sort it. David Cameron and Theresa May must. It is happening on their watch, because they took their eye off a very important ball, if you will excuse the sporting cliche.
‘The eyes of the world are on London’ is another cliche we may tire of hearing. It is true however. And if those eyes see a security shambles and a transport shambles, then there will be a political damage to the government, because of a reputational damage to Britain.
I hope none of that happens. Because getting the Games on in London is one of the best things to happen in our lifetime. So far it has been an incredible success. But Cameron and May need to get on top of this right now, to ensure it stays that way.