Cameron wins first battle in war to restore order. He must now use this crisis to define his premiership's mission.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Battle one / Restoring immediate order: You won't necessarily agree if you are a Manchester shopkeeper. Last night we learn that looters were able to get into shops and empty them of electrical goods and designer clothes and did so with little police interference. In London, however, the situation was much improved. I wrote yesterday that Cameron had gambled by not mounting a more radical escalation of police tactics. I think I underestimated the escalation. According to Home Office sources the Met did spend much of yesterday daytime in targeted round ups of gang ringleaders. The 16,000 officers on duty yesterday also mounted more aggressive tactics. Groups of youths were dispersed more quickly. Cameron has also authorised the use of rubber bullets if necessary. Downing Street will be very aware that one night's progress can be quickly undone but all credit to the PM, the Home Secretary and Mayor of London for beginning to get London back under control. Let's also thank the individual police officers for their bravery and sacrifices.
Battle two / Defeating the idea that cuts are to blame for our social crisis: Led by Ken Livingstone the Left is determined to blame cuts for the violence. We must hit back very hard at this. The state is spending 50.1% of national income. The tax burden has never been bigger. We are borrowing £400 million every day. There's no alternative to getting our deficit down or the British economy, loaded down by interest repayments and taxes, will become uncompetitive and unable to create jobs. The challenge is to reduce the waste in the state (as Francis Maude is beginning to succeed in doing) but also get people off expensive and destructive welfare.
Battle three / Championing tougher and more accountable policing: The police (by which I mean its leadership rather than its usually brave officers) were far too slow to protect the public on Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights. The Tories have a potentially winning issue in championing reform of the police. Labour have a winning issue in opposing budget cuts. While it's true that the primary problem is bad deployments, bureaucracy and politically correct practices it is going to take time to deliver full police reform and directly elected police chiefs. It's almost inevitable that budget cuts will have to be reviewed because of the politics. Never slow to cause difficulty for Number 10, Boris Johnson understands this and told the Today programme that the case for cuts in police budgets was always "frail". A Conservative-led government has made the wrong spending priorities, cutting deeper into defence and policing, for example, because of decisions to ringfence other budgets.
Battle four / Getting courts to back the reformed police: One Manchester youth interviewed on Radio 4 this morning summed it up. I'm going to carry on causing trouble and looting until I get caught, he said. Calculatingly accurate he said that it would be his first arrest, the prisons were already overflowing and the worst he'd get was an ASBO. He said he could live with that. We need to find ways of changing his calculation. At the very least he should fear getting a rubber bullet in his leg the next time he throws a stone at a shop window or police officer. Some Tory libertarians are still attacking CCTV. They are badly out of touch. Civil libertarianism deserves to be in retreat. As Monmouth Tory MP David Davies said yesterday: "Virtually any action the police take is likely to be jumped on by politicians and human rights campaigners like Shami Chakrabarti. Trying to police a riot therefore means a thin line of police officers confronted by a violent mob have to try and identify individuals breaking specific laws, then arrest them without causing inquiry to the lawbreaker or anyone else supporting them. It’s an impossible task."
Battle five / Don't give up on hug-a-hoodie: Beautiful piece in the FT (£) today from Danny Kruger, the man credited with the hug-a-hoodie idea (although, legend suggests, it was pre-Cameron Andy Coulson when at the News of the World who came up with the soundbite). He ends this way: "The wider culture – that is us – has abandoned virtue and adopted the ethics of indifference, dressed as liberalism. We have substituted welfare payments for relationships, rights for love, and the sterile processes of the public sector for the warm morality of living communities. Once the police have put down the riots, the rest of us have more to do than clean up the broken glass." It shouldn't be too difficult for us to combine two beliefs:
- One, that we need to do more to get young people off the conveyor belt to crime and to believe that mums and dads are the best crime prevention officers.
- Two, those people who stay on that conveyor belt will feel the full force of the law.
Battle six / The public are at the end of their patience and will explode if politicians don't wake up. Look at those frontpages and at a staggering poll in this morning's Sun. Conducted by YouGov 33% of voters are happy to see riot police use live ammunition. Ugly stuff. On almost every measure the public has had enough. Janan Ganesh got it right in yesterday's Economist Blightly blog. This isn't the early 1980s. The reaction to these riots will be different from then. People are seeing looters steal expensive sportwear and flat screen TVs. This isn't cuts, it's criminality. He notes that the political pendulum swung rightwards after similar episodes in LA and France. If Cameron can master this moment it will be a defining moment in his premiership.